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In Brantford’s opioid nightmare, a community sees more hopeful days ahead

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Brantford lies on the banks of Grand River about 100 kilometres down the road from Toronto. The Great One learned to love hockey here, on the backyard rink his father, Walter, made with a lawn sprinkler.

Named for Joseph Brant, the Mohawk warrior chief, the city became first a farming then a manufacturing hub, a smaller partner to the nearby steel town of Hamilton. Its yellow-brick churches and Victorian mansions are proof of its past glory.

Trouble came in the 1980s when the giant farm-equipment maker Massey-Ferguson closed its local plant. As with many smaller Ontario cities hit by the decline of manufacturing in Canada’s economic heartland, the community of 100,000 has struggled with social problems ever since.

Poverty, homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction have been visible in the growing municipality for years, especially downtown. But the opioid crisis is on a whole new scale.

Yellow boxes to dispose of used needles are now a fixture in Brantford. At left, a dropbox outside the Elements Casino Brantford; at right, a sharps collector hangs from the wall of a washroom at a downtown Tim Horton's.Downtown Brantford, as seen from the Brantford Public Library. The city of 100,000, once a hub of manufacturing, fell on hard times in the 1980s when the local Massey-Ferguson farm-equipment plant closed.A shopping cart, filled with personal belongings and items picked up around downtown, lies unattended in Brantford. Signs of the city's poverty and homelessness are especially pronounced downtown.

City leaders realized they needed to attack the problem from many angles. At least 2,500 nasal-spray kits of life-saving naloxone were distributed last year, free of charge, by pharmacies, social agencies and others. Police, firefighters, paramedics and child-protection workers started to carry it. Police even used the drug to revive a man who collapsed of an overdose in court while sitting in the prisoner’s dock.

The city set up needle-drop boxes at several spots around town to allow for the safe disposal of used needles. They look like bright-yellow mailboxes.

Police officers went into the schools to warn about the dangers of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin. Officials brought in a marketing company to produce a public-service campaign with an eye-catching logo: FCK, for Fentanyl Can Kill. The fire department wrapped its engines with the message.

The city held a series of forums to tell residents about the impact of the crisis. At one, a mother told a hushed audience how her 16-year-old son had overdosed after smoking a joint laced with fentanyl.

To help end the dangerous isolation of drug users, a group of volunteers did a Jane’s Walk around Brantford last spring, part of the annual series of city walks named after the urban thinker Jane Jacobs. Walkers visited local hangouts, greeted users they met and picked up discarded needles.

To get faster help to vulnerable users, the community opened a new clinic last fall. The rapid access addiction medicine, or RAAM, clinic is one of 60 that have sprouted around Ontario to combat the crisis. Its purpose is to get around the paperwork and waiting lists that often keep drug users from treatment. The clinic gets drug users on safe replacement medicine and sets them up with other services in the bargain: addiction counselling, housing support, mental health help. A special counsellor is available for Indigenous patients, some of them from nearby Six Nations.

Stephanie Rochon is clinical co-ordinator for the Brantford RAAM, or rapid access addiction medicine, clinic.

A shift in policing methods is a key to Brantford’s campaign. As with many police commanders, Chief Nelson found he could not arrest his way out of the drug problem. Simply rounding people up or moving them along failed to address the underlying causes of the vagrancy, public intoxication, panhandling and discarded needles that plague parts of the city. “The criminal justice system does not solve addiction,” he says.

Brantford, he argues, has to get help for users and police have to steer them toward that help, not just chuck them in jail. He is pushing to get outreach teams on city streets to help users who might not walk through the door of a clinic.

Chief Nelson, like just about everyone else involved in the effort to quell the overdose epidemic, cautions that the fight has only begun. This year’s improved numbers could be a blip. Or the bad numbers from 2017 might have been the anomaly. “This is not just a one-time put up a website and pat ourselves on the back,” he says.

Brantford police Chief Geoff Nelson.

Evidence of the drug crisis is still all around, despite the city’s efforts. The amount of fentanyl seized by police went up dramatically last year. When the Ontario Provincial Police found 17 grams of the potent drug in a traffic stop just after Christmas, a bulletin warned it was “enough to provide a lethal dose to 68,000 people.” This month, police have been finding discarded equipment from a suspected drug lab dumped at various places around the city.

Some residents are not convinced things are improving at all. Tracey Bucci, the manager of a city law office, leads the Brantford Guardian Angels, a small group that tours city streets handing out food, clothes and kind words. She says the drug and homelessness problems are getting “worse, and worse and worse.”

Randy Roberts, 54, a lifelong drug user who gives talks about his “lived experience” of the crisis, says the RAAM clinic is a great start but Brantford need a detox centre and an overdose-prevention site where users can take drugs under supervision in case they OD. His ex-wife overdosed and died on Jan. 24, 2018. His daughter found her sitting bent over in a chair with her lottery-ticket-scratching tools. “She went to sleep and never got up,” Mr. Roberts says. “I’m tired of having friends and family die.”

But, even if they agree more needs to be done, those involved in Brantford’s campaign think it is making a difference. The RAAM clinic co-ordinator, Stephanie Rochon, says that regular visitors are overdosing less and getting more help coping with their struggles. At a case-management meeting before the RAAM’s 9 a.m. opening one recent Friday, she helped review the needs and progress of clients.

One woman who had four drug overdoses in two weeks had just started on methadone, the replacement opioid often used to treat addiction. She needed counselling and mental-health treatment as soon as possible. Another woman had found a place in a detox centre in nearby Hamilton. A troubled family of four that was evicted from a local apartment had moved into a new place, but there was no furniture so they were sleeping on the floor. The clinic was trying to find them some mattresses.

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