Harm reduction services coming to the Danforth and East York


An east Toronto agency is taking its work to reduce harm from substance abuse to the Danforth and East York.

Starting this month, South Riverdale Community Health Centre (SRCHC), which for 20-plus years has helped people who use drugs access new, sterile needles and syringes, safer crack stems, injection and smoking kits, education and referrals to a wide range of services and resources through its COUNTERfit harm reduction program, is launching a new street outreach project.

The two-year pilot is made possible through a $250,000 grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s $30 million Harm Reduction Fund.

The Leslieville-based organization has also received a one-year, $69,000 grant to hire a full-time community health worker and five part-time peer workers as well as host four outreach events in the community.

The new East Toronto Outreach Project will see a small team of harm reduction workers, some of whom have lived experience, hit the streets to get to know people who use drugs in the underserved Taylor Massey, Crescent Town, and Oakridge neighbourhoods as well as along the Danforth from roughly Greenwood Avenue to Main Street.

Relevant harm reduction programs and services will then be rolled out as relationships with substance users in this part of the community evolve.

Another goal of the project is to strengthen and develop new partnerships with social service and health-care organizations as far east as Warden Avenue and secure an accessible space on the Danforth.

“The initial part is about building up that trust and engaging with people then developing evidence to get more funding so this pilot project can be more permanent,” explained Rhiannon Thomas, the co-ordinator of South Riverdale’s COUNTERfit program.

The South Riverdale Community Health Centre, which serves those living in an area roughly bounded by Lake Shore Boulevard East to O’Connor Drive and from Coxwell Avenue to the Don Valley Parkway, started working to expand its harm reduction services in the spring of 2018 by hosting a community meal and paid focus groups with about 45 people from the East Danforth area who use drugs. The goal was to gauge if those surveyed wanted to see these kinds services available on the Danforth, and to determine what effective and accessible harm reduction would look like.

The organization also consulted its staff to get their thoughts on the expansion.

“Everyone very clearly said they want outreach to protect themselves and others, and to prevent overdose,” said Julia Barnett, South Riverdale’s manager of urban health and consumption services.

Leigh Chapman, a Leslieville-based nurse whose brother Brad died of a drug overdose in 2015, said providing people who use drugs with more opportunities to access non-judgmental programs and services will make all the difference.

“Those connections can absolutely be a life-saving intervention. The more people looking out for each other, the better,” said Chapman, a strong supporter of supervised consumption sites.

“(This expansion) shows how SRCHC is such a responsive organization. They’re really willing to think outside the box and be innovative.”

A former volunteer co-ordinator at the unsanctioned Moss Park overdose prevention site, she’s seen firsthand the great need throughout Toronto, including in the city’s east end, for more harm reduction services.

“There’s really nothing east of Carlaw,” Chapman said, adding harm reduction is about acknowledging drug use exists and providing people with the necessary supports.

Barnett said SRCHC has been aware of the need for dedicated harm reduction services on the Danforth and in East York for some time, but there just haven’t been resources available for expansion.

“We know there’s a high incidence of overdose in this area from EMS statistics. We know those needs are there,” she said, pointing to August 2019 data prepared by Toronto Public Health that has identified Danforth Avenue, east of Victoria Park Avenue, as a so-called hot spot for suspected opioid overdoses based on calls received by Toronto Paramedic Services.

Between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, Toronto EMS responded to 4,208 calls for suspected opioid overdoses in Toronto. About eight per cent of requests for assistance came from the Danforth East/East York area. This figure is based on numbers collected by neighbourhood and intersection.

Currently, SRCHC distributes harm reduction materials and resources to people who use drugs in the east end through a mobile service. The agency also has some satellite locations at private homes as well as an evolving partnership with the Comprehensive Treatment Clinic at 1154 Danforth Ave.