Supportive housing for opioid addicts needed in Edmonton, city councillor says

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Supportive housing for opioid addicts needed in Edmonton, city councillor says

Edmonton needs more supportive housing for people with addictions — especially people living on the street who are addicted to opioids, says Coun. Scott McKeen.

The city has approved four locations as safe injection sites for people with drug addictions, and providing supportive housing is a logical next step, McKeen said Thursday.

"With the number of people we have dying from bad street drugs," he asked, "why don't we have a managed opioid program?"

McKeen raised the point while he and Mayor Don Iveson toured Ambrose Place in the city's downtown on Thursday.

The facility provides permanent housing for 50 people. Residents are given measured amounts of alcohol to manage their addictions.

"We're seeing tremendous reductions in hospital visits," McKeen said. "There's a tremendous drop in calls for service to paramedics and police."

A recent city report showed Edmonton is falling short of providing housing for people with addictions, who are the hardest to house.

So far, 200 units have been built under the city's plan to end homelessness, but it's estimated another 1,000 units are needed for people with a variety of substance abuse issues.

The city says that building the extra 1,000 units would require an annual investment of $21 million over 10 years.

The proposal from McKeen has the support of Mayor Don Iveson, who has called on the provincial and federal governments to come up with the money needed for additional facilities similar to Ambrose Place.

As the funding is secured, it will be up to city council to be "courageous" in finding sites for these facilities throughout the city, said Iveson.

"There may be pushback, but that pushback comes from a misunderstanding fundamentally of the positive things that happen at places like Ambrose Place," he said.

Development around transit centres is a good example of where this type of housing could go, added Iveson.

"Any place where you would find services and employment and mobility," the mayor said. "Where you have high density and medium density and mixed-use development."

Ambrose Place has had a positive impact on the McCauley neighbourhood, said Carola Cunningham, executive director of the facility.

"We pick up dirty needles, we pick up garbage," Cunningham said. "It's actually increased the market value of some of the homes around here."

Providing more supportive housing can be justified simply by the tax dollars being saved, she added.

"I think communities would grow from the experience of hosting a home like this in their neighbourhood."

When Ambrose Place opened in November 2014, Dexter Severight was one of its first residents. At the time he was addicted to alcohol and living on the street.

"It came to the point where it didn't matter anymore — 'Who gives a damn,' that kind of attitude," said Severight, 59.

He no longer drinks, saying the programs at Ambrose Place have brought him back to his Indigenous roots and have helped him to heal from the inside out.

"That developed my inner being and made me stronger so it was easy for me to say no to anything that wasn't good for me, " he said. 

Providing housing for those with substance abuse issues would result in a reduction in crime and health care costs, said McKeen.

"We'll save tens of millions of dollars … in hospitals and policing," he said.