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Many Ritchie businesses and residents 'feeling conflicted' about new Boyle Street health hub

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Boyle Street Community Services is hosting the second public consultation session Monday evening ahead of opening a new health-care hub on the western side of Ritchie.

The social agency has signed a lease to run what it describes as a basic healthcare and aid referral "microsite" near 81 Avenue and 101 Street. It plans to offer housing, recovery and addiction help, and limited in-patient medical care.

Boyle Street is also in the process of obtaining the proper licence and illegal drug exemptions to operate three overdose prevention booths at the site. That process is still underway and is subject to approval from the provincial government.

Regardless of those approvals, the health hub will open to provide the other services.

'FEELING CONFLICTED'

KJ MacAlister owns Viva Clayworks, one of the immediate neighbouring businesses to the new health hub when it is expected to open this spring.

She will be attending the evening meeting, MacAlister told CTV News Edmonton, and hopes to see the data behind the decision of where the health hub placement will be.

"I would like to know the rationale and the actual five-year plan," she said.

"Every step of the way so far, I've felt as though this has been jammed down our throats and there's been no public consent or communication."

While MacAlister doesn't own the site, she has been at the location for 23 years and worries about what impact it may have on property values for the surrounding area.

"As a human being, I understand the need and the social care," MacAlister said. "I'm feeling conflicted."

KJ MacAlister owns Viva Clayworks, a pottery shop, which will be one of the business immediately neighbouring the health hub (CTV News Edmonton/Matt Marshall).

"As a business owner, knowing that a portion of their clientele ," she explained, "[are] drug users is affecting my clientele. My clientele being 90 per cent women… We have hours that run from eight in the morning to nine o'clock at night, sometimes a little bit later on Saturdays.

"It makes people coming to us more vulnerable," she said, adding that customers have already said the news of the health hub has made them nervous.

The west Ritchie area that will be home to Boyle Street's new "microsite" (CTV News Edmonton/Jeremy Thompson).

'HELPING THEM WHERE THEY ARE'

A handful of blocks to the southeast, Bent Stick Brewing co-owner Ben Rix told CTV News Edmonton he hopes people focus on the need for more social services in Ritchie and surrounding neighbourhoods.

"I know that there is a little bit of debate about what it will do to the neighbourhood," Rix said. "But I think the people who need these supports are already in this neighbourhood."

"They're not going anywhere else, so helping them where they are makes sense to me."

When asked if his thoughts would change if the potential overdose prevention site were opening immediately next to his brewery, Rix said it wouldn't change his support "because it would still be needed."

"With people using drugs, there's obviously a negative connotation to that, and I can understand people's concern," he added. "We shouldn't write them off as nothing. It's important that we think of the implications.

"But I would hope that people realize the folks in need of these supports, they are our neighbours. Supporting them should only make the situation better."

'CLEAR THAT WE NEED THIS'

Boyle Street chose the site using data from Edmonton Fire Rescue Services and Alberta Health Services dispatch logs, spokesperson Elliott Tanti said.

A study performed by Boyle Street identified Ritchie and Old Strathcona as two of the top four neighbourhoods in Edmonton when it comes to drug poisonings and calls for service.

In addition, Tanti said there's been a 12 per cent increase in EFRS responding to overdose calls in the area.

"That's concerning and alarming and one of the factors that went into determining this location, for sure," Tanti added.

Avinsh Nanda, Ritchie Community League president, said he has heard a "range of opinions" from residents and area businesses.

"I think at the core of it is a recognition that there are folks in our community that need these supports, but how do we ensure that we are doing that in the best way possible," Nanda said.

As someone living in the neighbourhood, Nanda says he completely understands the need for the site.

"We have a large population of folks who are unhoused; we have folks overdosing on the street quite regularly," he added. "It's clear that we need this type of intervention services."

Avnish Nanda speaks with CTV News Edmonton on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 (CTV News Edmonton/Matt Marshall).

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for Alberta's mental health and addictions minister, says community engagement is critical to Boyle Street's application for an overdose prevention site.

"We have been clear that we are exploring new supervised consumption service locations in Edmonton to serve areas with unmet need, including south of the river," Aitchison said.

He could not comment on any approval timeline, adding that the province has yet to receive a final submission from Boyle Street.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Marek Tkach

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