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Greater Harlem Coalition Logo

October 25, 2023



A Toronto Story

“It started with needles. They began appearing on the ground around Toronto's South Riverdale Community Health Centre with increasing regularity after [their] safe injection site opened . . . in 2017.” Concerned parents picked them up from areas where children played and took them to the health centre. The staff’s response was that they'd try to do regular sweeps. But "the needles kept piling up.”

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Drug paraphernalia gathered in the neighborhood around Toronto's South Riverdale Community Health Centre. (Supplied)

By 2019 the area outside the centre was an open-air drug emporium. Drug dealing was rampant, as was open use. Drug dealers would arrive in cars, on foot and more typically on bikes. Drug addled users would scream at neighbors and passersby.

"For residents, the behaviour exhibited by some harm-reduction staff outside the building [had] been concerning for a long time. Several residents claimed to have seen harm-reduction staff using outside of the building.. . One neighbour said he heard a harm-reduction worker tell a client complaining about his lack of funds to just go and rob some houses on my street because “they’re all rich.””

"The question remains: How did this safe injection site come to create the problems that safe injection sites were purported to eliminate or decrease? How did it birth a very concentrated drug problem where one didn’t previously exist? The answer, to a large extent, is through its own policies and neglect.”

In 2019 the health centre posted an article titled: “Police presence near supervised consumption sites in Toronto discouraging access.” Interviews of users stated “the presence of police produced anxieties and fears of arrest and harassment.” The health centre’s CEO supported the establishment of a non-enforcement boundary outside the injection site to keep law enforcement away. Locals saw harm-reduction staff attempting to prevent plainclothes police officers from making drug-dealing arrests around the same perimeter. That non-enforcement boundary turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. “Those with addictions didn’t need to go inside the centre to use; they could do so outside with impunity. It was the same for dealers.”

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A baggie containing orange fentanyl found by a five-year-old boy behind his house near the centre. (Supplied)

On Friday, July 7, a trio of dealers drew handguns and opened fire on each other outside the health centre. Huebner-Makurat, a local young mother of two had gone out to buy a smoothie and died in the crossfire. 20-year-old Ahmed Mustafa Ibrahim was charged with manslaughter and other crimes. Thirty-two-year-old Damian Hudson was charged with second-degree murder. The third male suspect hasn’t been caught. A fourth person, 23-year-old Khalila Zara Mohammed, was charged with accessory after the fact for assisting Ibrahim in his escape as well as helping him while he was in hiding. Mohammed was employed as a harm-reduction staffer at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

Some say drugs in certain city districts have always been a fact of life. They imply that they always should be. But the drug selling, buying and open use on the level seen since the health centre’s opening was alarming and unprecedented. Two weeks before the shooting the health centre’s CEO conceded that the concentration of drug activity by his building was far denser and more persistent than anywhere around it. "He agreed it was not part of what one typically equates with the casual drug exposure that comes with downtown living. On this point, there does not seem to be any dispute.”

In a recent meeting the centre’s CEO was asked why more people were injecting drugs outside of his building than in his safe injection site. "He replied by saying that some users inhale drugs, which they can’t do in the safe injection site. But he quickly admitted that most of the use on the perimeter of the centre was by injection. “It’s complicated,” he said. “It’s complicated” comes across as code for either “I don’t know” or “more users prefer to inject in a space that is not supervised.”"

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In the traumatic aftermath of the shooting the superintendent from Toronto Police’s 55 Division revealed that relations between police and the South Riverdale Community Health Centre had not been great (contrary to the glowing rapport presented in implementation reports). It’s also clear that “the Safe Injection Site proposal for Toronto was a ‘done deal’ before local residents were notified or consulted.” We’re now presented with a popularized notion that safe injection sites are “the latest hot ice, as if ’there is no alternative.’

The director of the safe injection site, Leah Palmer, said security for the outside of the building wasn't in the cards. "She explained that safe injection sites had no funding for security." When she was begged to change that, she said she’d make inquiries, then wasn’t heard from again. The centre and its board have never presented a safety plan.

The centre is responsible for the drug activity outside of the centre.

"In the 2016 implementation guide, it advises that the South Riverdale safe injection site assume a “Zero-Tolerance Drug Selling Policy…on or near its premises.” Not only did the centre completely fail to enforce this policy, but it also effectively promoted policies that encouraged drug dealing."

Dr. Sharon Koivu specializes in addictions. In an interview with the Toronto Sun she “went on record saying that the South Riverdale site had lost its way. Specifically, she criticized the site’s publicized no-judgment philosophy, which Koivu said had “no expectation and no desire for people to stop using drugs.” The Sun’s followup point was that South Riverdale had no reporting about how many of those who use its safe injection site were directed to addiction treatment or recovery programs.

Neighbors had long been warning the health centre "that at some point a child was going to get injured.” It turned out to be the mother of two young children.

Shooting victim Karolina Huebner-Makurat. (Handout/Toronto Police Service via CP)

Shooting victim Karolina Huebner-Makurat. (Handout/Toronto Police Service via CP)


Dept. of Health Doubles Down on Oversaturation

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OnPoint in East Harlem is expanding its hours.  The facility will now be open  7:30AM-11PM weekdays and 10:30AM-6PM weekends

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