After declaring a state of emergency over an ongoing drugs crisis last week, the mayor of Belleville, Ont., is now asking the province to help fund a community hub for addictions, mental health and homelessness, as well as a much-needed detox centre in the city.
Mayor Neil Ellis said plans are already underway for an expanded social and health services hub known as "The Bridge," but the city needs an additional $2 million from the province to move the project forward.
"This needs to be operational as soon as possible," Ellis told a news conference on Monday, noting that the city has already invested about $2 million in capital costs for the project.
The southeastern Ontario city is also asking for funds to establish a detox centre, which it says would be a crucial component in the fight against addictions and toxic supplies of street drugs.
The specific funding request came days after Belleville declared a state of emergency following a rash of overdoses in the city's downtown core. Emergency crews had responded to 17 overdoses in just 24 hours, and the majority of them occurred within a two-hour window on Feb. 6.
The sudden and overwhelming demand for ambulances and opioid overdose-reversing naloxone stretched emergency services to their "breaking point," officials said last week.
Sheila Braidek, the executive director of the Belleville and Quinte West Community Centre and co-chair of The Bridge Integrated Care Hub, said the city needs a well-staffed central location where unhoused people can access food, showers, primary health care, substance use supports and other services.
"This is a project that's going to support our entire community," Braidek said at Monday's news conference. "Immediate investment by the powers that be would enable this project to move forward more quickly than it already is."
The community's needs have outgrown the capacity of a drop-in centre at the Bridge Street United Church in downtown Belleville, the municipality has said. That prompted plans for an expanded program that will be operated by a consortium of community groups on a larger property donated by the city.
In the meantime, additional funding is needed to keep the Bridge Street United Church drop-in centre going, Braidek said.
Belleville Police Chief Mike Callaghan said Monday that many communities of a similar size have detox centres, but the city of about 55,000 residents does not – and that needs to change.
"It is the foundation of a road to recovery," Callaghan told the news conference, adding that transitional beds are also needed to follow detox program stays.
"It's paramount that we move forward on this because if we don't, we're not going to have the opportunity to have that kind of support that these individuals who are suffering from the addictions require."
Callaghan also said the police service is trying to identify what exactly is behind the growing number of drug poisonings by sending samples of seized drugs to labs for analysis.
When asked about Belleville's request for funds, the Ontario Ministry of Health said Monday it has received a submission from the Canadian Mental Health Association Hastings Prince Edward office.
"We encourage CMHA HPE to continue to work with their Ontario Health region and the Ministry of Health to ensure people in HPE can connect to the care they need, when they need it," ministry spokesperson Hannah Jensen wrote in an email.
The ministry previously said that it was working with the Hastings Prince Edward Public Health Unit, whose area of coverage includes Belleville, to respond to the overdoses and to ensure the health unit has enough naloxone.
A spokesperson for Health Canada said last week that a "major driver" of the crisis in Belleville and elsewhere is an increasingly toxic illegal drug supply.
"Tragically, as the situation in Belleville highlights, the overdose crisis continues to be one of the most serious and unprecedented public health threats in Canada’s recent history," Charlaine Sleiman wrote in an email to The Canadian Press on Friday.
Sleiman said Health Canada and the federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Ya'ara Saks have reached out to Ellis and other Belleville officials "to discuss how they can continue to work together with the Ontario government to address this crisis."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.
Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press