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City of Edmonton stops funding drug overdose prevention pilot downtown

The City of Edmonton has stopped funding a pilot program that saw teams of nurses and outreach workers preventing and responding to overdoses on downtown streets. 

Twelve teams from Boyle Street Community Services had been assigned to walk around the Stanley Milner Library, downtown malls and pedways and the LRT system. Their duties focused on responding to drug poisonings but they also helped educate business owners, pick up needles and refer people to services.

The city funded the first phase of the pilot, which began in the spring of 2022, then extended its funding in December 2023, but Jen Flaman, deputy city manager of community services, told city council in a May 27 memo that there were no administrative funds available to extend it further. 

The memo said the city submitted a funding request to the provincial government but was unsuccessful and has applied to a Health Canada program but has not heard back.

The pilot cost $3.3 million, including about $147,000 for a data analyst at Boyle Street.

Marliss Taylor, who is Boyle Street’s director of Streetworks and health services and oversaw the pilot, said it was a success.

She said the teams responded to more than 440 drug poisonings, distributed more than 20,000 naloxone kits, disposed of more than 7,000 sharp objects, and referred 2,500 people to detox or supervised consumption services.

“We absolutely were able to save some lives and I think that’s critically important,” Taylor said. 

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Tabatha Plesuk is a nurse based at the Stanley Milner Library in Edmonton. She provides health support and clean supplies to vulnerable people in and around the branch.

She said the teams also helped security guards and demonstrated friendly, respectful ways of interacting with vulnerable people in public places.

EMS responses to opioid-related events surged in Edmonton in recent years and a record 1,867 people died in Alberta because of opioid poisoning last year.

Though the rate of drug poisoning deaths in the province has slowed since 2023, Taylor said the number of overdoses in Edmonton is still high. According to the province’s substance use surveillance data, there were 148 drug poisoning deaths in the city between January and March of this year.

Taylor said she is worried about what could happen if the overdose prevention teams stop running. 

“What we don’t want is for people to be injured or die of an unintentional drug overdose in spaces where people are not sure how to react,” she said.

In an emailed statement, Michelle Steele, a city spokesperson, said the teams were funded as a response to the worsening drug poisoning crisis in 2022 “with the recognition that the funding was not permanent.”

The city memo said funding ended on June 30 and the team’s services would be closing, but Taylor said the teams are still working for now.

She said Boyle Street is seeking other funding sources, with help from nearby businesses and organizations.

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