‘We just can’t wait’: After rash of drug overdoses, Belleville vows to open new community hub – with or without Ontario's help

The mayor of Belleville says that if the province won’t help, it’ll have to find a way to tackle its growing drug and homelessness problem itself.

Earlier this month, emergency personnel in the eastern Ontario city were overwhelmed after being called to 23 drug overdoses in less than 48 hours.

On Feb. 8, the municipality of 55,000 residents declared a state of emergency, calling on the province to step up immediately and support programs and services for people in the community who are experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and addiction.

During a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Belleville Mayor Neil Ellis said they’re still waiting for a response from the provincial government.

Specifically, Belleville wants the province to invest $2 million for wraparound services at its new 24/7, low-barrier community and social services health hub. Called “The Bridge,” this purpose-built centre will be operated by a consortium of community groups on a large property donated by the city.

“The Bridge Hub meets the immediate needs of individuals experiencing homelessness, some of whom are also experiencing substance use harms and mental health issues, while longer-term system responses are implemented,” Steve van de Hoef, director of programs and administration at Bridge Street United Church, where the John Howard Society operates a drop-in program called the Bridge Integrated Care Hub.

That hub, where several drug overdoses happened in early February, is set to be relocated to a much larger site roughly two kilometres away.

downtown Belleville

So far, the City of Belleville has committed to investing roughly $3 million for the expanded initiative: $2 million from last year’s budget to purchase a former banquet hall and $1 million to renovate it.

The city is also seeking Ontario’s help to open a local detox centre, not to mention support for transitional housing that is geared to income, Ellis said.

These two key asks were previously made last May when council was approving funding for the hub project.

They were made for a second time on Nov. 14, a week after Belleville saw 90 drug overdoses in one week.

“There’s no support as of now for our two asks and it was noted that the capital for the hub would be a tough ask,” said Ellis, who met last week with Quinte MPP Todd Smith and Ontario’s Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, Michael Tibollo, to discuss the situation and tour the future facility.

“We asked the province for $2 million and the answer was basically you’ll have to wait. As myself, as mayor of the city, it’s time to bring action. If we have to do it by ourselves, that’s what we will do.”

Ellis said that he was told by the province that Belleville must first come up with a mental health and addiction strategy.

Lisa Ali, the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association – Hastings Prince Edward (CMHA – HPE), said that community members, healthcare organizations, local service partners, politicians, and the broader community have come together as a collective to “develop a common comprehensive strategy that not only addresses today’s challenges, but also build an effective long term plan.”

“This work will build on existing efforts that are already underway. Community engagement will help develop solutions that resonate with the people we aim to support and that are realistic and achievable,” she said.

“By acknowledging and understanding that diverse perspectives within our community, including those with living and lived experience we can create a strategy with solutions that are comprehensive, compassionate, and that reflects the collective well being of our community.”

Ali also noted that they’d be looking to other communities that have faced similar challenges.

“This strategy will bring together a common voice set of needs and priorities. We are counting on all levels of government to match the investments the city is providing and to create a robust set of supports across the region,” she said.

Ellis said that he hopes that the province come back with its response to Belleville’s strategy within six weeks to two months “with the goals to expedite the direct funding and set in motion tangible changes to the manner in which we treat and manage mental health, unhoused, and addictions that are harming our city.”

CP24.com has reached out to Smith and Tibello for a response, but we have yet to hear back.

Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Health Sylvia Jones, said that the province is in receipt of CMHA – HPE’s submission for the project, which she noted “will take years to be operational.”

“Our government has worked with CMHA HPE and other local leaders to identify the immediate needs of Belleville and surrounding communities,” Jensen said in a statement provided to CP24.com, noting that as a result of those conversations, the provincial government is providing more than $216, 000 in one-time funding to “immediately increase staffing at local support services and increase the presence of community outreach teams as well as first responders within the downtown area.”

“This funding is in addition to the $35 million our government have invested in mental health and addictions support services in the Belleville area this year,” she noted.

Belleville overdose

Ellis said that he welcomes the money, but much more is needed to address his city’s needs. He also said that Belleville needs an ongoing commitment from the province to fund the operation of the hub.

Unwilling to wait any longer for the $2 million in funding from the provincial government, Ellis said that at the end of February, they’d be putting forward a request that $2 million be set aside in Belleville’s next operating budget for his city’s new integrated care hub, which he said he’d like to see “up and running” by the end of the year.

“Although it’s a provincial issue, it’s our issue also so it’s time that if we don’t get the answer, it’s time to move forward,” he said, pointing to a similar strategy the city has taken by investing more than $4 million to recruit physicians over the last 14 years.

“We can just keep going the way we’re going.. … If you want to take care of yourself, I guess you need to do it yourself.”

Ellis concluded the presser by making a final plea for the government to do more to help communities across the country facing similar challenges.

“It’s time for the province to step up, take responsibility, and act on the crisis that is in front of all communities. Addiction and unhoused: the face of this is in the majority of all cities in our province and across Canada. I challenge the upper governments to act now,” he said.

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