LETHBRIDGE - A series of meetings hosted by the City of Lethbridge, meant to elicit constructive feedback, experiences, varying view points and potential ideas to at least temporarily manage some of the drug-related issues facing the community, have so far been well attended.
The first meeting, held Wednesday afternoon at the Lethbridge Signature Sandman Lodge on Scenic Drive, was attended by the maximum 80 participants, while a second meeting held the same evening was attended by more than 50 others.
Thursday's afternoon meeting was full, while dozens of others were pre-registered for the evening session.
The meetings themselves were conducted in a small, round-table format, with a facilitator posing several questions including “What has been the impact of the drug crisis on you?” Discussions around the tables ranged from the impact local business owners are experiencing most days, to those who have lost loved ones to overdoses, frustration over the lack of many follow-up services to treat addicts or give them a place to go after they use, workers experiencing “burnout” dealing with the drug crisis, and those who were simply curious about what solutions may be thought of in the short and longer term.
Council members were not part of the meetings to encourage more open conversation and to discourage anyone from pinning any specific issue to any one councillor or the mayor.
Resident Betty June Steffensen, who registered with her daughter and attended Wednesday evening’s meeting, said over the last year she’s seen a marked difference in the city’s downtown area, and wanted to share her own experiences.
“I moved here four-and-a-half years ago… and I’m finding that people are quite disappointed with what is happening in this city and I just want to find out what we can do to try and make it a better place to be.”
Her personal experiences include observing addicts shooting up and discarding material in a park close to her daughter’s home; something she feels is unacceptable, especially when children are nearby. She says she also avoids the downtown area as much as possible.
“It’s a beautiful downtown area. And I know when they had the Ribfest at the Galt Gardens it was disappointing what was happening there. When we go for coffee now, we usually go where there’s not people asking us for money for either drugs or liquor or money because they need it. I don’t feel comfortable downtown. I feel for the safety of my grandchildren and my kids as well.”
Substance abuse professional Jim Mason also registered to attend a meeting.
“Drugs and alcohol have two sides to the story. One is the recreational users. The other is those that are addicted, which is a human rights issue. And balancing those two issues is very, very difficult. A lot of people tend to overlook the fact that you’re dealing with a protected disability in cases, and (they) simply adopt a more moralistic approach."
However, he adds that accountability is also a large component of treating addiction.
"Those that are suffering from any sort of disability have to be accountable for their behaviour. And in recovery and in treatment, one of the key factors is helping people understand they're accountable...it's striking a balance. Making sure that these people are getting the services they need, while at the same time making sure that those who don't need the services are still happy and their lives are moving forward."
City Manager Bramwell Strain said the four public meetings were open to anyone who wished to attend, and were the part of a three-phase approach.
“So, there was that social service providers last week (Executive Leaders Coalition on the Opioid Crisis presentations). That, in conjunction with the information we’ll gather over the next couple of days, plus another piece of the puzzle which is a listing of programs and services and a gap analysis, which is very important. So, what are the missing pieces we need to work on? All that information will be fed to the ad-hoc committee.”
A strategic plan will then be put together for Phase 2. Phase 3 of the process in early November will include a working group of representatives from key organizations and agencies in Lethbridge who will develop an action plan and draft terms of reference for the council-appointed committee. The terms of reference will require approval by City Council. Strain says the process sounds very arduous and long, but in reality the final recommendations should be no more than two months away.
“This is a very public process. That is the whole idea. Not only will the process be shared, the results will be shared.”
The information will also eventually be sent to the provincial and federal governments in the hopes of potentially expediting funding for some of the recommendations that could be set out in the plan.
In the meantime, Strain says getting to a ‘manageable set of solutions’ is the goal. That could include setting up temporary spaces for addicts to frequent, so that businesses near the Supervised Consumption Site (SCS) aren’t affected as greatly as they say they have been since it opened.
“There needs to be safe space created so that addictions can be treated. Homeless can be sheltered. Food, meals, safe consumption site is absolutely a part of that. But there is a continuum. Right now we only have bits and pieces of that. So, when you don’t have all those supports, people go to the public spaces. So, part of that is adjusting for that problem.”
But first, the feedback from the community meetings will be compiled into a comprehensive “What We Heard” report which will be presented to City Council later in the month. The report will also be made available to the public.
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