Community caring in Toronto’s east end

I was walking eastward on Dundas East near Parliament Street. A friendly man walking alongside me began making conversation. It came up that we both previously lived in the east end/Moss Park neighbourhood. We both shared our positive feelings towards the neighbourhood, and the man turned to me and said, “I love the east end. Everything’s here. It’s so easy to get what I need.” It timed out well, as at that moment the man began veering to the right toward the harm reduction supplies pick-up area at Regent Park Community Health Centre.

Community pride

Reflecting on the man’s words I couldn’t help but feel a sense of community pride. Of course, I do wish folks living in all parts of the city have equally low-barrier access to harm reduction supplies and services. Still, I could not help but feel proud of how far things have come in this part of town.

Early harm reduction site

I recalled when, in 2017, I first noticed the pop-up Toronto Overdose Prevention Society in Moss Park. I asked them what they were doing, and they revealed that they were offering life-saving harm reduction resources, with volunteer doctors offering supervised consumption services.  I’ll never forget my first thought that followed: “I want to bake these folks a cake!”

Harm reduction sites were once illegal

At that time, and for multiple years following, this life-saving work was considered ‘illegal.’ From early on, there were talks about the site being forced to shut down, and in years that followed, the renamed CTS (Consumption and Treatment Services) Moss Park, now an affiliate of South Riverdale Community Health Centre, was under threat of being cut off of all public funding. Backlash from police and government—perhaps unaware of the community benefits of a harm reduction approach to healthcare—took place in the face of indisputable hard facts of hundreds of lives being saved each year.

With baited breath

For a while, I would walk by the park on my way home, each day, and hold my breath as a I looked over, praying I’d see them there with their tent and trailer, doing some of the most important front-line work there is. One day, they were, in fact, no longer there, but I quickly learned it was only because they’d moved into a new storefront location with increased capacities and facilities, with the support of South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

Meaningful work ripples out

Before long, their perseverance, courage, and incredibly meaningful work rippled out to spark a whole slew of established community agencies and grassroots groups to follow suit. Organizations like Regent Park Community Health Centre and Street Health started consumption and treatment services rooted in harm reduction. Since then, laws have changed, partial funding from the government was established, and this completely novel, harm reduction-based approach of health care for drug-users took root.

That is what I was reflecting on when I chatted with the man who professed his appreciation for the east-end. It may be a part of town where he no longer resides, yet he can still be found frequenting it with a smile on his face, and the knowledge that free and dignified access to resources will always be available to him.

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