There is a lively debate in my city over the proposed locations for a supervised drug injection facility. One city-endorsed location is 241 Simcoe Street — a public housing complex just outside of the downtown core.
I am a diehard supporter and advocate for harm reduction and I think a supervised injection site would greatly benefit our neighbourhood. (Full disclosure: yes, I live in the neighbourhood, too.)
However, although I was initially enthusiastic for the 241 Simcoe Street proposal, I have grown skeptical of the specific location choice over the past two months. What changed my mind? Talking to the residents of 241 Simcoe Street.
Let’s peel away all the layers of campaigning, protesting, and pontificating. What is at the heart of the debate? Imposing a supervised consumption facility in a subsidized housing complex. Let’s unpack this from a socioeconomic and class perspective.
What is the message you’d take away if you were told your apartment building was going to be assigned a safe injection facility on the premises? And what if you don’t get a say beyond the obligatory (and mostly symbolic feeling) ‘consultation’ process? No, the experts know best. They know.
After a few conversations, I can appreciate how this proposal feels like salt in an open wound for some people who are already survivors of the social stigma associated with living in a rent-geared-to-income complex. (And it ironically comes at the hands of a sector who fancies declaring itself as advocates for the underprivileged.)
In a sense, this debate seems like (yet another) example of further stigmatizing people under the pretence of ‘helping’ them. You know, addressing ‘the needs’ of ‘this population’ as a categorical monolith.
Notice the way the story is framed in the media: it is the building’s residents pitted against a swath of community agencies, faith communities, and other organizations. It doesn’t take much imagination to suppose how patronizing this might feel if it were your house or condominium in question.
What seems lost in the discussion is the simple appreciation that 241 Simcoe Street is someone’s home. Just because someone qualifies for subsidized housing, should this status mean they lose their say about what happens in their building?
Let’s use our imaginations for a minute.
Across the tracks from 241 Simcoe Street is The Renaissance, a new swanky condominium tower. Imagine if public health officials proposed a zoning change to allow a supervised drug consumption facility in the basement of The Renaissance. All hell would be summoned forth. And lawyers. There would be lawsuits everywhere — the residents, the builders, the city, the province.
Of course, one will interject, how much sense does it make to compare a snazzy, private condo tower to a publicly subsidized apartment building? Are they not legally different animals altogether? Well, yes, exactly. I think this is precisely the point. This controversy ultimately boils down to class: at the end of the day, money buys you the power to exert some degree of influence over what goes on in the basement of your apartment.
No money. No power.
And if you don’t have money, you find yourself beholden to all the bureaucrats and officials who — while insisting they serve your best interests — act in direct contravention of your stated desires. And they most probably will move against your pleadings because all the other potential venues in the city are economically walled gardens protected by the deepest pockets of the caste. At the end of the day, a) your building is the cheapest real estate for the project, b) your neighbours fit the stereotype, and 3) moving in comes with the least political fallout.
Setting aside the importance of harm reduction (in general) and safe consumption (in particular), there still remains the critical necessity of determining an appropriate, equitable location for services. As it stands, 241 Simcoe represents the imposition of a program in people’s homes. If you wouldn’t put it in the basement of The Renaissance based on the rights and privilege of those residents, you probably shouldn’t put it in the basement of 241 Simcoe Street either. How is this equitable?
How much autonomy and right to self-advocacy should a person lose if they rent their apartment from a housing corporation instead of owning a mortgage? Everyone loves to blame everyone else for NIMBYism, living in a subsidized housing unit seems to mean you can’t even advocate for Not In My Basement.
At risk of belabouring the point: I am 100% in favour of supervised consumption sites. Heck, build a facility on my block. But please don’t put it in the homes of people who don’t have a choice.
The biggest irony to me is that choice is a long established pillar of harm reduction theory, but choice is precisely the one thing that the residents of 241 Simcoe Street are not being given.