By Frank Touby –
Don’t get them wrong. They’re not NIMBYs. Corktown residents gathered last month in antique Enoch Turner Schoolhouse in a promise kept by their MPP, Health Minister George Smitherman to add a third Methadone Task Force hearing specifically for them. He spoke briefly, pledging to make the task force report public and promising not to create a needle exchange there, as so many were fearing.
The people of historic Corktown have long held high hopes for their picturesque slice of Old Town Toronto, near where Canada’s First Parliament building stood at the southwest corner of Parliament and Front St. E. until the Yankees burnt it down in the War of 1812. (In later retaliation “our” soldiers set fire to the home of the U.S. government. They failed to burn down that structure, but they charred it so badly it took coats of whitewash to make it presentable. Thus it came to be known as The White House.) Corktown is thought by some to have been named for its early inhabitants, many of whom came from County Cork in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine and later.
In the 1990s Corktown businesses polished up their storefronts in anticipation of a cleaner, brighter neighbourhood future. Sitting in the divided Toronto-Centre Rosedale ward, home to the city’s massive concentration of social service facilities, Corktown had endured the onslaught of crackheads who invaded and brought with them the outward signs of their inner miseries.
In 2004 the notorious and troublesome Tent City to the south, a frequent source of undesired visitors, was closed and most of its 140 destitute inhabitants were housed around Toronto thanks to city efforts and those of various anti-poverty groups, especially the locally based Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. A period of relative calm settled on Corktown and business owners and residents began to dream in Technicolor of a high-end retail destination and comfy dwellings in a lovely, tidy setting.
They prettied up their Sackville Park with lots of neighbourhood volunteer labour and lobbied city hall for historic decorative lampposts that hearken back to Victorian-era gaslights.
Then, in their view, just before Christmas 2005, bureaucrats dropped a turd in the punchbowl. They announced that a methadone store specializing in dishing out pharmacist-supervised doses to addicts was moving from St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, where some of its more troublesome clientele had for years outraged nearby condo dwellers, to a larger King St. location in a historic Corktown building adjacent to the park, a school, a church.
No community consultation. Just a fact of life that was to become sadder as time wore on and the daily 350 addicts accumulated around the property that had only a few inside seats, meaning many must hang around outside.
A few of them (5% were some estimates) caused problems for the Corktown residents and businesses. But those 5-percenters were there every day because methadone is not something that can be handed out in advance; it has a value on the illegal drug market, so dispensers want to see it consumed on the site.
The specialized dispensing operation is entirely lawful, has been promoted by federal and provincial governments, is not restricted by the city as to where it can locate, and the owners have a right to practise as they do, where they do.
Corktowners testifying before the task force expressed great sympathy for the people who must go there to get what one addict is quoted as calling “a liquid noose” around the neck. Methadone is as addictive as the heroin and debilitating pharmaceutical pain killers it replaces, but it permits those hooked on it to lead more normal lives—except for the gnawing need to report to a methadone store to get their fixes. Some drift in and out of using illegal drugs, which accounts for the dealing that often occurs nearby. Temptation is always close.
They are also checked to see if they have used other drugs and their conditions are monitored by on-site professionals according to government-mandated protocols.
A brief from the Corktown Residents and Business Association read by Suzanne Edmonds to the task force said the current structure of requiring recovering drug addicts using methadone replacement to report daily to methadone distribution centres discriminates against them and invades their privacy. Many innocently became addicted after their physicians legitimately prescribed potent pain killers to treat severe temporary conditions.
They are lumped together with hard-core street junkies who come to the neighbourhood and do what street junkies do, says the CRBA submission. They deal drugs, they urinate and defecate in the park and in alleyways, they vomit on the sidewalks and walls of buildings, they force their ways into restaurant and business washrooms to shoot up or smoke crack, they leave their needles and paraphernalia in the park and in alleyways, they cause concern by putting themselves in danger in traffic, or passing out on the street.
Some of the entrepreneurial among them who have stayed clean (or claim to have stayed clean) fill bottles with their urine and sell them in the park to those who have to take drug tests. (The full presentation is online at www.thebulletin.ca)
The brief says: “Our residents no longer feel safe. Our commercial sites have suffered a loss of business and in some cases, have chosen to leave our community. Some incidents have been reported to the police but in most cases, the perpetrator is long gone by the time the police answer the call, so many residents no longer make a police report.
“Very few families now visit Sackville Park as many of the incidents described above have occurred in front of children. One resident asks how he can continue to teach social values to his 17-year-old son when every day this teenager witnesses drug deals being openly conducted across from his home.”
Three officers from 51 Division, including community affairs Staff Sgt. Frank Bergen, were in attendance at the hearing, which was for Corktown residents. About 40 Corktowners were there and a dozen spoke their concerns.
They were critical of the structure of the methadone program, with some suggesting to the task force that any pharmacist be able to dispense the substance and thus spreading out the distribution of methadone and avoiding such high-intensity pockets as Corktown has become. Others suggested that hospitals are the best place to provide the palliative.
Operating a methadone clinic can be a goldmine for pharmacists with some investment backing and the right training, as one Corktowner pointed out. Without the government approval, such single-purpose business plans would make no sense.
In essence, government has taken a Tory-style position in privatizing distribution of a public health service that many think should take place in the anonymity of a hospital setting, not with clients of for-profit businesses hanging around outside in residential neighbourhoods.