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Parents voice concern about new supervised drug-use site near Montreal elementary school

Dozens of parents and residents of Montreal's St-Henri neighbourhood attended a meeting Tuesday evening to voice their concerns about the proximity of a proposed supervised drug-inhalation centre to a nearby elementary school.

A new, four-storey building on Atwater Avenue is expected to have 36 studio apartments meant for people who are homeless and experience mental health or addiction issues. It's located less than 100 metres from Victor-Rousselot Elementary School, which has about 300 students from preschool to Grade 6.

"Everyone I've talked to is fully in support of it. It's just this is a super densely-populated area, and, you know, it's too close to a school. It's too close to kids. I mean, it's too much exposure for really young people. It's not fair," said Lindsay David, who lives nearby.

Davis, like several other people from the neighbourhood, say they were blindsided by the proposed project organized by Maison Benoit Labre, a local non-profit that runs a day centre for unhoused people. They all say they had no idea the centre would allow people to bring their own drugs to consume onsite until it was reported in the media over the summer.

"I'm thinking of the term gas-lighting. They said one thing and it turned into something else entirely. It was going to be housing … and my next-door neighbour told me it was going to be a supervised injection. That's not what we were initially told," said Phil Malwyn, another St-Henri resident.

"It's just way too close. [I'm] not against the centre in principle, but the location."

Construction is seen on a new supervised inhalation centre in Montreal, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. The new complex, will also offer housing, a community centre, meals, and allow the injection of hard drugs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

Parents met with officials from the non-profit and the school Tuesday evening to discuss the project. Outside the school, Malwyn was with several concerned residents, carrying a poster that said, "Not in my schoolyard" and "No crack, fentanyl, and crystal meth within feet from our children."

According to Maison Benoit Labre, the ground floor of the new centre will have what it calls an overdose prevention centre, where clients bring their own substances to use under the supervision of trained personnel.

It's expected to be the first site in Montreal to be able to accommodate supervised drug inhalation as well as other forms of consumption, such as injection.

Construction is seen on a new supervised inhalation centre in Montreal, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. The new complex will also offer housing, a community centre and meals, and allow the injection of hard drugs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

Quebec’s minister for social services, Lionel Carmant, said in a statement to CTV News that he is aware of the parents’ concerns about the centre.

"A supervised inhalation centre is an important harm reduction service, but it is imperative that there be social acceptability in the neighbourhood. We can't impose a [supervised inhalation site] in a neighbourhood so close to a school," the minister said, adding that he would follow the developments in the coming days.  

Not everyone was as opposed to the project.

Anick Desrosiers is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, a social worker and psychotherapist who works with homeless people.

As a mother of three children, she understands parents' concerns about the location of the drug-use site in the neighbourhood and the safety of the children who go to the school, but says she sees a real benefit in having it open to help address a real need in the community.

"I think, however, that fear is not justified. People experiencing homelessness and using substances, they cannot use them in shelters. They cannot use them in their home because they have no home. So when they need — and it's an addiction — they need to consume. And when they go in shelters, social workers will tell them you cannot consume here. If you need to consume, go outside," she said.

Desrosiers' research focuses on the traumatic life experiences that precede life on the street for people experiencing homelessness. She said the dialogue around the proposed St-Henri site tends to be based on prejudices and that people experiencing homelessness or addiction issues would rather use substances in private than in plain view.

"What I hear in the conversation is 'crackheads', 'junkies' — you know, these people that we don't know, so we fear them. I had the chance to know these people, to work with them and most of them are just, like, sensitive people," who have lived "unbearable" and "incredible things" in their lives, she said.

Some parents say after the meeting, which was closed to the media, they didn't get the answers they were looking for from the organizers.

Leveesa Lessey's seven-year-old son goes to Victor-Rousselot. She said she left the meeting feeling "frustrated."

"Now I not only have to worry when I walk the street with him, but I have to worry about him at school. This will eventually get out of hand," she said.

"Why here? Why not put it in a more secure location? You could have found a more secure location."

With files from CTV News Montreal's Matt Grillo and The Canadian Press Top Stories

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