Cohealth backs government’s search for new injecting room

By David Schout

The community health provider long expected to house a new safe injecting facility in the CBD has backed the state government to find a new appropriate site.

Cohealth, whose Victoria St facility near Queen Victoria Market (QVM) was for much of the last year the government’s “preferred” site for the state’s second safe injecting room (SIR), said it supported wherever the government looked to next.

Former police chief commissioner Ken Lay, appointed to oversee the rollout of Victoria’s second SIR, is understood to have determined that Cohealth Central City was not an appropriate site in a soon-to-be-released report.

It was taken off the table after strong pushback related to its close proximity to vulnerable residents and QVM, not because of the service Cohealth would provide.

The government was widely tipped to announce the former Yooralla building at 244-248 Flinders St as the new preferred site, after it confirmed in June it had bought the building. 

Cohealth chief executive Nicole Bartholomeusz said there was simply a need to prevent overdoses in the CBD, irrespective of the location selected. 

“We fully support the thorough process being undertaken by the Victorian Government, led by Ken Lay, to identify a suitable site for a CBD supervised injecting service,” she said. 

“With one person dying of heroin overdose on our city streets every month, there continues to be a need for a CBD supervised injecting service that will save lives and move public drug use off the streets.”

Cohealth did not answer questions regarding whether there was a level of frustration with the government’s handling of the rollout. 

From June 2020 until earlier this year, the 53 Victoria St site was the only location considered to become the state’s second SIR.

However, the eggs-in-one-basket approach came back to bite the government as it was forced to shift focus when it became clear the northern CBD site would create significant amenity issues. 

The City of Melbourne had strongly opposed the site due to it being within 100 metres of the Queen Victoria Market, “vulnerable residents”, a transport interchange and child care services.

Late last year it had “provided factual information to Ken Lay to demonstrate why this location is not the right choice”.

Ms Bartholomeusz said it was important that whichever location was selected had integrated assistance. 

“We want to see a service that connects people struggling with drug addiction, mental ill-health, homelessness and other disadvantage, to health and social support services,” she said.

“As an organisation that works with marginalised people right across the north and west of Melbourne, we know when society is facing a health crisis, we must respond with greater investment in health services.”

A 2020 report by an independent panel of experts revealed that Victoria’s first ever SIR in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in its first 18 months of operation, and thwarted 271 “extremely serious overdose incidents”.

The report determined that the facility required help dealing with demand, which prompted the government to announce the state’s second facility should be located in the City of Melbourne.

Between January 2015 and September 2019, Ambulance Victoria data shows there was around one heroin-related death a month in the municipality. 

While it will not house the state’s second SIR, Cohealth Central City will continue to operate a range of services for people experiencing homelessness and other disadvantage at the 53 Victoria St clinic, which includes GPs, nurses, allied health, mental health and social support services •

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