This year, it’s hard to know what kind of news story we are going to wake up to. There has been so much heartache and loss during 2020 that sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Some days it feels like the year has been going on for decades and other days it feels like it is flashing before my eyes and I can’t keep up. The critical role our government plays in ensuring our most vulnerable have access to programs and services that provide health, safety and dignity has become even more clear.
I have spent countless hours researching addictions and talking to advocates on P.E.I. I have stood in the legislature and advocated on their behalf for better services. But never have I felt what I felt when I saw the picture of a dark culvert, filled with mattresses, clothing and other personal belongings. It was a glimpse into the life of a homeless drug user on P.E.I. I felt my stomach sink.
I cannot help but imagine the fear and dread I would feel if I called that culvert home. What if it was my daughter? Images capture moments; our minds fill them in. My mind saw this culvert full of people. People who are struggling, who have nowhere safe to go, using drugs to cope or escape, but people nonetheless. People who deserve love and dignity. People who we cannot, as a province, pretend do not exist.
The city closed the culvert because they felt it wasn’t safe. I can understand this reaction at first, but I find myself asking "Who was the city trying to protect?" Do we really believe the people living in this culvert are now going to find somewhere safer to sleep tonight? Do we really think sleeping in this dark and dirty place was a choice? Our shelters are full, and we do not provide shelter space for Islanders in the grip of active addiction. P.E.I. has no safe consumption sites, and extremely limited harm reduction supports. This was their only option.
I do not accept that living in a culvert, regardless of your drug-using, is acceptable for any Islander. I want these individuals to get help and support. And until they do, I want them to be safe. I want them to be warm and, most importantly, I want them to know that they deserve that.
This week, I submitted a formal written question to the minister of Health and Wellness asking him what supports were provided to the individuals who were living under this culvert and what consultation his department did with them prior to it being sealed up. When I receive a response to my questions, I will share it on my social media platforms.
In the meantime, there are options government can use to help. For example, one harm reduction support P.E.I. currently does not have, but advocates for years have been calling for, is a safe consumption site. These places provide a safe, clean space for people to bring their own drugs to use in the presence of trained staff. This prevents accidental overdoses and reduces the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV. These sites can also provide access to important health and social services, including substance use treatment for those who are ready.
We must also provide housing options that recognize that housing is a human right. People cannot begin to make safe and healthy choices if they are not living in a safe space.
A safe consumption site and housing options could change the life course of the people who called this culvert home. Until the day we work together to provide this for Islanders, I will continue to see this image in my mind.
Trish Altass is the MLA for Tyne Valley-Sherbrooke and the Official Opposition critic for health and wellness. Contact Trish at [email protected] or 902-620-3977.