Hamilton set to declare a state of emergency for homelessness, mental health and opioid addiction

Hamilton is one step closer to declaring states of emergency for homelessness, mental health and opioid addiction.

The emergency and community services committee unanimously voted in support of the motion put forward by Coun. Brad Clark (Ward 9). It will now go to the council later this month for final approval.

While the act of declaring a state of emergency doesn’t result in more money from senior levels of government, it’s a way for the city to call for change, especially if other municipalities pass similar motions, Clark told the committee.

“We have to do something,” said Clark, who is chair. “I don’t know how else we get the attention from the provincial government.”

The motion state Hamilton has invested millions of “unsustainable” local property tax dollars into programs and services, but the “exceptionally complex” challenges continue to have “a significant detrimental impact” on communities.

Clark said, in the city’s emergency shelters, staff have to turn away people in need because there’s simply no more room. There’s also a shortage of supportive housing, hospital beds for people experiencing mental health challenges and treatment options for opioid addiction.

“We have no place for those caught in the emergency shelter system to go,” said Clark. “And so it just becomes a vicious cycle, in and out the door. The reality is no matter how you slice it, we have an emergency in homelessness,”

The motion calls for the province to:

  • Allow more than 21 consumption and treatment service sites

  • Expand access to medications that prevent opioid withdrawal and reduce use such as methadone and buprenorphine

  • Provide long-term funding for affordable and supportive housing

  • Advocate for federal government to decriminalize personal use and possession of substances and increased investments in health and social services

Hamilton’s emergency declaration is based on the one Niagara Region council passed in March. Other Ontario cities have also declared similar emergencies. Ottawa was the first in Canada to declare a homelessness and housing emergency in February 2020.

‘A made-in-Hamilton approach’

Harm reduction programs are worth investing in, said Mary Vaccaro, who works at McMaster University’s school of social work and oversees the YWCA Hamilton’s safer drug use space. She spoke as a delegate at the committee meeting.

The safer drug use space was created in April last year for women, trans and non-binary people experiencing homelessness in response to the opioid crisis, Vaccaro said. It’s open overnight when all other services are closed and offers harm reduction supplies, naloxone and training, and referrals to detox, treatment and other health supports.

The YWCA building
The YWCA location at 75 MacNab Street South in Hamilton is shown on Oct. 22, 2021. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Before the safe drug use space opened, the YWCA called emergency services for suspected overdoses and opioid poisonings among their clients between five to seven times a week, said Vaccaro.

Since the space opened, they haven’t had to call the police or paramedics once and have had zero deaths, she said. Staff respond to overdoses using oxygen and monitoring, and when necessary naloxone.

“This is a made-in-Hamilton approach, but an approach that’s getting attention on a national level,” Vaccaro said. “We are eager to see this pilot expand in other shelters locally and across Canada.”

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