A community organization that operates a supervised injection site in Toronto's east end held a resident tour of the facility Saturday aimed at helping to ease safety concerns in the area.
Jason Altenberg, the CEO of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, said the centre is opening its doors to members of the public that rallied together after the death of Leslieville resident Karolina Huebner-Makurat, a 44-year-old mother of two who was hit by a stray bullet while walking in the area in July 2023.
Altenberg said he hopes it will help show residents the importance of their work, which spans beyond harm reduction and into areas like health care, transportation and social services, and let them know their concerns around safety are taken seriously.
"These services are so essential and our commitment to the community is deep," said Altenberg.
"We're going to keep talking to the community as we go and we'll look forward to meeting people who might have questions for us."
The open tour is the first of three the organization is hosting this month to discuss changes the organization took to enhance public safety since the July shooting. But some community members say violence and drug use have been on the rise in their neighbourhood even before Huebner-Makurat's death.
Andrea Nickel, with Leslieville Neighbours for Community Safety, is a resident of the area. The neighbourhood coalition formed as a result of Huebner-Makurat's death, and they've been trying to raise alarm on the safety concerns that have taken place particularly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Implementation of harm reduction services done in an optimal way should be able to ensure that the community is kept safe and our kids are kept safe," she said.
"Unfortunately, it took a mother of two being shot for real attention to be drawn to, you know, community concerns around drug dealing, drug use, and violence."
South Riverdale Community Health Centre hosted one of three tours Saturday it has scheduled this month to show locals in the community how they operate and what changes it has made to increase security. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)
Province and 3rd-party review underway
There hasn't been a confirmed link between the health centre and the shooting, but in August, a woman who worked at the centre was charged with accessory after the fact to an indictable offence and obstructing justice.
Still, in the wake of Huebner-Makurat's death, the centre organized a committee to make recommendations on how to improve safety, Unity Health Toronto hospital network started a third-party review of the Riverdale site and the province started its own review into the service, which includes consulting with public health, reviewing complaints against the site and developing a new incident reporting template.
The Ontario government has appointed Jill Campbell, a former executive at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, as supervisor to look more closely at community concerns.
"They were seeing people hanging around outside in large numbers, they were seeing loud behaviours, they were seeing more needles in the community ... they felt unsafe, and felt that the centre should be doing more," Campbell said.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we're going to be able to find a way forward because people are now getting together to talk about what needs to happen to improve their safety."
The South Riverdale Community Health Centre has fenced off an area to prevent groups from congregating outside, hired security, and increased sweeps for needles in the neighbourhood. (CBC)
Campbell is expected to remain in the six-month position until the end of April. While she's optimistic with the progress so far, she worries that the underlying problems contributing to these safety concerns aren't being acknowledged in the same way.
"The extent of the problem is really homelessness. It's mental illness, it's lack of resources for people," she said. "If you've read anything about the history here there, there has been a long history of drug use in this area and that's why the [consumption and treatment service] was actually established here."
The centre has fenced off an area to prevent groups from congregating outside, hired security, and increased sweeps for needles in the neighbourhood, Altenberg said. In the last year, the organization served about 15,000 people with significant barriers to health, he added.
"They deserve care, and for the people who have substance use issues in the community, they deserve to live," he said.
"The toxic drug supply crisis is is killing people on a daily basis in the city and we really feel that so much of that is preventable and want to be part of preserving life and giving people hope."