Council backs a CBD safe injecting room

By David Schout

Plans for a safe injecting room in the CBD remain on track despite an attempt to block it by a group of city councillors.

In the most passionate debate at Town Hall in years, councillors voted 7 to 4 in support of the Victorian government’s plans to house the state’s second Supervised Injecting Room (SIR) within the CBD.

The debate was prompted by the government’s controversial move to scrap its “preferred” SIR site at 53 Victoria St, reportedly shifting focus to a prominent Flinders St site.

Angered by the prospect, Cr Roshena Campbell put forward a separate motion at the May 25 council meeting to reject an SIR within the City of Melbourne outright on the basis it would “significantly hinder” the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery.

But councillors voted against it, paving the way for the government to push ahead with plans. 

In a plea to councillors, Cr Campbell described reported plans to open an injecting room on Flinders St as “nothing short of insanity”.

She said anecdotal evidence from locals and traders near the North Richmond SIR — the state’s first and only facility — was damning. 

“I have spoken extensively with residents and businesses in the North Richmond community, and they told me the injecting room there destroyed the safety and amenity of their area … they told me they would not wish it upon anyone else.”

She was supported by three others, including Cr Philip Le Liu who said the move would turn the CBD into the “CDD … the central drug district”. 

However, the other seven councillors backed an “evidence-based” approach to the divisive issue, and referenced the findings of an independent expert panel, which found that the North Richmond site had saved at least 21 lives in its first 18 months and thwarted 271 “extremely serious overdose incidents”.

This report also found that the state’s second SIR — a hygienic place where people can inject drugs in a supervised health setting — should be located within the City of Melbourne. 

Ambulance Victoria data showed that opioid-related ambulance attendances had doubled in the CBD from 2015 to 2019.

“I acknowledge it will be controversial, but the evidence shows that services such as these save lives, and they do reduce the number of people who are shooting up in our city streets,” Lord Mayor Sally Capp said.

Reports suggested the former Yooralla building at 244-248 Flinders St was the government’s new “preferred site” for the state’s second SIR, although it was yet to confirm this. 

Both Cr Capp and her deputy, Cr Nicholas Reece, expressed grave concerns about this part of the CBD at present.

Cr Capp said the “hotspot” at the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth streets had caused “trauma” to residents and traders.

Cr Reece, who referenced his recent visit to the SIR at Kings Cross in Sydney, as well as a personal drug-related tragedy at the meeting, counted 17 people in “various states of intoxication” in a recent walk down Flinders St. 

“It’s ugly, it’s not good,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

“It’s a sign of a city, of streets, that are failing. And if I’m being really honest with you, Darlinghurst Rd in Kings Cross is in a better state than Flinders St is in Melbourne at the moment … it’s easy for us to be critical of supervised injecting services. But if you’re going to rule them out as an intervention, the ‘we don’t support them in our town’, well I also think it’s incumbent on you to tell us, what is your solution? What are you going to be put forward to try and change things? Because the situation as it stands is unacceptable to me. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to have some informed intervention.”

While the decision to open an SIR in the CBD is ultimately a state government decision, but as the key stakeholder, the council’s approval is vital. 

53 Victoria St off the table

The government’s move to scrap plans for the northern CBD site is a significant development.

Since June 2020 it publicly maintained that Cohealth community health service at 53 Victoria St was its “preferred site” for the state’s second SIR.

However, it took the site off the table after strong pushback from the council, nearby residents and the Queen Victoria Market. 

It is believed concerns raised by Drill Hall affordable housing residents next door were crucial in convincing former police chief Ken Lay, who has led the consultation process, to not endorse the location.  

Drill Hall Residents’ Association president Martin Mulvihill said there was sense of relief among residents.

“I’m sure a lot of the people here would be very glad that it’s no longer here. I never thought this site was suitable,” he told CBD News.

Drill Hall, a pre-war army officer training facility, was refurbished in 2011 and seven levels of affordable housing were built atop the original building.

Mr Mulvihill was worried about the “relegation effect” of an SIR, which would place “different stigmatised groups together in the one area to the disadvantage of all of them”.

He said some vulnerable residents, plus those experiencing homelessness who often congregated in the community garden downstairs, would be confined to one area.

“We would have had three groups shoved up against one another. And in our minds, it would have multiplied the problems. I made that point to Ken Lay and my impression was he was very responsive to it,” he said. 

While he said the government’s rollout had been “clumsy”, he hoped the Flinders St site — which he believed to be a “better proposition” — would work.  

“I really do hope they get it right. I think it is a problem.”

The move to scrap plans for the northern CBD site is set to further delay the SIR rollout within the CBD.

Mr Lay’s report to government is already five months behind schedule and is now not expected until late July at the earliest.

“Nobody deserves to die from a drug overdose”

Reports that the government had now prioritised a site opposite Flinders Street Station drew impassioned responses on various mediums.

Asha, who lives near the corner of Flinders and King streets, told CBD News she supported the move.

She said at present, there were what felt like continuous police and ambulance callouts.

“Anyone who has lived in the city and says there’s not a drug problem is insane. There are drugs everywhere,” she said.

“On the street they leave needle wrappers and baggies everywhere. I think it’s better for them to have a venue to go, they can get NSP (needle and syringe program) supplies, condoms, connect with social support programs, and if an overdose happens a nurse will be there to make sure they’re okay.”

While a number of business owners had raised alarm at the proposal, Asha said the issue was a matter of protecting lives, and Flinders St’s prominent location made sense to ensure that happened. 

“Nobody deserves to die from a drug overdose, and the drug users in the city grid are not going to go all the way to Richmond to get high. They score the drugs around the City Loop train stations, so the safe injecting room needs to be in proximity to that.”

Councillors back experts

The majority decision by councillors effectively re-endorses an expert panel which last year recommended Victoria’s second SIR be located within the City of Melbourne. 

The independent panel, chaired by drug and alcohol expert Professor Margaret Hamilton, found that the state’s first injecting room in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in its first 18 months, and thwarted 271 “extremely serious overdose incidents”.

However, it required help dealing with demand, and deemed the City of Melbourne — which has the second-highest ambulance attendances for heroin overdoses after the City of Yarra — the most appropriate municipality.

Councillors did make their continued support conditional, however.

They said the SIR must be “located within a comprehensive health service” and wanted a commitment from government it would “work to improve amenity to surrounding residents, businesses and other visitors”.

Divisive topic

Unsurprisingly, news that the government was considering a Flinders St site for a new SIR generated strong, vexed debate.

A range of prominent figures weighed in, and here’s what some of those figures had to say …

Clover Moore, Sydney Lord Mayor: 

“I remember the outrage and misinformation that was peddled as we worked to establish the safe medical injecting centre in Kings Cross. We pushed on, and the centre has saved lives.”

Michael O’Brien, State opposition leader: 

“The state government hasn’t got the Richmond facility right, why would you take that flawed model into the CBD? The heart of Melbourne is struggling enough as it is.”

Ellen Sandell, State MP for Melbourne:

“The Greens are supportive of a site in the inner city. The exact site is up to the state government, but it would be better if they actually worked with the council and the community in making their decision.”

Bill Lang, executive director of Small Business Australia: 

“It will have a direct impact on the interest of customers to visit the area and do business with them, therefore reducing their revenue, their profitability and the value of their small businesses.”

Dean Hurlston, president of Ratepayers Victoria:

“The CBD needs all the love it can get. These sorts of facilities need to be near medical and security facilities like hospitals where they can be properly dealt with.” •

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