By Lethbridge Herald on July 16, 2020.
Calling the results of an audit of ARCHES, which revealed serious fiscal mismanagement leading to the province’s decision on Thursday to defund the organization, deeply troubling and potentially devastating to the city’s most vulnerable, Mayor Chris Spearman said the City of Lethbridge was committed to working with the province to define the next steps forward.
“I feel angry, to be honest,” said Spearman when asked Thursday about the audit report. “We have in good faith thought harm reduction and supervised consumption was perhaps a needed service. Certainly it is disappointing to hear there wasn’t the right accountability.”
Spearman said the City only has one remaining program it funds with ARCHES after moving others over to the Canadian Mental Health Association earlier this spring.
“Right now the only funding that’s currently provided to ARCHES is for removal of encampments,” he explained. “All the other services now have either been funded internally by ARCHES, for example needle pickup, and other services like the rapid rehousing of those with severe needs, that has now been transferred to other agencies.”
Spearman said he does not know how things like needle pickup and maintaining regular contact with the city’s drug users will be handled now if ARCHES is out of the picture, and with the future of supervised consumption services in the city in doubt.
“We don’t want the problem to be worse in the community, and we don’t want a proliferation of drug use throughout the community,” he said. “We want people to feel they can go access the services they need to make sure this problem doesn’t get worse before it gets better.”
Spearman said he still believes in the value of harm reduction as one of the four pillars of care in the community, and he was curious to see how the province’s proposed AHS-run temporary mobile supervised consumption service would work in Lethbridge.
“I don’t know what the capacity is if they will be able to keep up with the needs,” he stated. “Certainly we want to make sure people have those services that need them, and can access them. We will leave it to the province to bring forward the next steps as to how they are going to address the issues.”
Last autumn prior to the announcement of the provincial audit of ARCHES in March, Coun. Blaine Hyggen sponsored a motion to ask the province to suspend funding for supervised consumption services in Lethbridge pending a provincial government review of these services going on at the time.
His motion also called for ARCHES to continue be funded for other programs while that review was underway. The motion sparked widespread debate in the community, and was eventually defeated in council by a vote of 6-3.
Hyggen released a statement on Thursday saying he was still analyzing the auditor’s findings.
“Lethbridge is a passionate community, and at the end of the day, regardless of the side of the coin you are on, we can all agree that healthy and safe residents make for a more vibrant community,” he said. “I remain committed to this and am unwavering in my ideologies that recovery needs to be addressed in Lethbridge in a big way. In light of announcement yesterday from our provincial partners (about investing $25 million for 400 new treatment beds), I am confident Lethbridge will be on the right path for a healthier future.”
Admitting it was blindsided by the announcement after first hearing about it in the media, ARCHES also released a statement on Thursday following the revelation it would be losing provincial funding.
“Considering the media information that has been reported in connection to the forensic audit, the ARCHES’ Board of Directors understands that clients, staff and community members will have a lot of questions and very real concerns,” the statement reads in part. “We have concerns, too. We woke up to this news just like the rest of our community and at this time the full report findings have not been given to the ARCHES’ Board of Directors. Please understand we are waiting to comment until we have all of the information.”
The organization also states it will hold a press conference on the issue once it has processed all the auditors’ findings.
Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, said her immediate concern is for the people using the site.
“I am really worried what will happen to them with the closure of ARCHES,” she said.
A quarterly surveillance report from Alberta Health showed there were 439 unique clients who made more than 60,000 visits to the Lethbridge site in the first three months of this year.
“There is a huge unmet need for services,” said Hyshka.
The government said it has asked Alberta Health Services to set up a temporary mobile overdose prevention site in Lethbridge to help those clients.
Hyshka said mobile services are designed to serve smaller numbers of people.
“That’s certainly not the case in Lethbridge.”
Hyshka questioned why the province doesn’t have another provider step in similar to what it did for a homeless shelter in Lethbridge in April.
“I’m curious as to why that solution wasn’t used in this case,” she said. “This is a life-and-death issue, so why not have another organization take over?”
A spokeswoman for Alberta Health said there have been roughly 130 client visits per day to the Lethbridge site since March.
“Based on that utilization, we expect that the overdose prevention site … will be able to match the capacity,” said Kassandra Kitz, press secretary to the Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction, in an email.
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With files from Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press