By David Schout
The Victorian government’s bid to open the state’s second safe injecting facility has only considered one contentious CBD site despite widespread rejection from key stakeholders, as the December release of a key report looms.
The site at 53 Victoria St, located below affordable housing residents and near the Queen Victoria Market (QVM), has been roundly condemned by the City of Melbourne, nearby residents and market traders.
The Andrews Government, which nominated the cohealth central city site in June, has maintained it would consider other locations if presented.
But it has been confirmed that the injecting room’s rollout, a process led by former police commissioner Ken Lay, as yet had not explored alternatives.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) confirmed that at the current point in this process, 53 Victoria St remained the government’s preferred site and no other location had been the subject of consultation.
Ahead of Mr Lay’s recommendations due in December, the government’s position appeared delicate.
Should the report find the site inappropriate, the government would be pressured to take it off the table and start afresh to find a new location.
Should it proceed, a stoush with the council looms after Lord Mayor Sally Capp said it would look to block it, although that step would likely be subject to a vote by newly sworn-in councillors.
The council holds a 299-year lease on the site, which it opposes as an injecting room primarily because of its close proximity to “vulnerable residents” at Drill Hall, and to the market.
“Yeah I think we will do [block it] — I’ll certainly champion whatever measures are necessary because in my view that is not the most appropriate site for the injecting room,” Cr Capp told 3AW on November 5.
Cr Capp hinted Mr Lay’s review could fall in their favour anyhow.
“My understanding is that after listening to all of the feedback, that it’s not a recommended site.”
A council spokesperson told CBD News that while it accepted the evidence that supervised injecting rooms saved lives, it had told Mr Lay the northern CBD site was inappropriate for a number of reasons.
“The City of Melbourne does not believe that the cohealth site opposite the QVM is the appropriate location for a medically-supervised injecting room,” the spokesperson said.
“It is one of the most densely popu- lated areas in the City of Melbourne; opposite the QVM which is the city’s most significant tourist attraction, a transport interchange, child care services and vulnerable residents all within hundreds of metres … we have provided factual information to Ken Lay to demonstrate why this location is not the right choice to assist Mr Lay in his advice to government.”
The council did not respond to questions on whether it had suggested alternatives sites to the government.
In June, the findings of an independent report found Victoria’s one and only injecting facility in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in 18 months, and needed help dealing with demand. While the report merely recommended that a second Victorian facility should be located within the City of Melbourne, the government went a step further and nominated cohealth without consulting the council.
While angered, the council initially vowed to keep the Victoria St site on the table, but a U-turn on July 21 saw it flex its lease control of the site and reject it outright.
A spokesperson from DHHS said Mr Lay’s report was on-track for a December release, and has sought the views of those directly impacted by the potential move.
“The Victorian Government has a strong commitment to listening to the voices of the community and other key stakeholders on this issue. To date, Mr Lay has met with 97 stake- holders over 42 sessions, gauging the views of health and drug reform experts and institutional representatives such as Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria, and relevant resident and business representatives.”
Drill Hall Residents Association president Martin Mulvihill, speaking on behalf of af- fordable housing residents located above the preferred site, praised the consultation led by Mr Lay.
But he said a degree of “fear and anger” from residents was relayed when given an opportunity.
“Fear of what the consequences would be, and anger that it appeared to have just been dumped on residents out of the blue,” he said.
The council has stressed that its rejection of the site was not a reflection on cohealth, who it has praised as a community health provider.
Rather, concerns surrounded the proximity of the site to affected stakeholders