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If there is a lesson to be learnt from Melbourne’s first safe-injecting room in North Richmond, which the state government finally made permanent this month after a five-year trial, it’s that the success of such a facility relies on appeasing the community as much as managing what goes on inside.
As the medical director of the North Richmond facility, Dr Nico Clark, admitted recently, more should have been done earlier to help bring the community onside. “We need to take people on a journey, and I think we haven’t done that to the extent that we could have done,” he acknowledged.
The North Richmond safe injecting room.Credit: Eddie Jim
It’s a lesson that will be decisive in determining whether a second safe-injecting room will become a reality, this time in the city centre. There is no doubting the need.
Ambulance callouts for heroin-related incidents in the City of Melbourne overtook those in the City of Yarra for the first time in 2021-22. And the most recent data from the Coroners Court of Victoria reveals that in the two years to June 2022, 29 people died from a fatal heroin overdose in the city centre, the highest number of any local government area.
While the Richmond facility has attracted its share of controversy and protests from locals, an independent report by John Ryan found it had achieved its foremost objective of saving lives. The report estimates that 63 people are alive today because of the room’s intervention. About 6000 people made almost 350,000 visits to the centre between June 2018 and September 2022, and 700 of them have started opioid treatment.
The report has suggestions for how the North Richmond facility could improve the programs it offers drug users, and they should be taken seriously, but there is absolutely no suggestion that the government should backtrack. On medical and health related grounds, it’s a no-brainer.
But that has not silenced the critics of a possible new facility in the CBD. The government had hoped to locate it in a building opposite Flinders Street Station, close to the popular al fresco city dining laneway, Degraves Street.
Protests from residents and businesses meant the idea was put on the backburner, and Premier Daniel Andrews said in March that no final decision would be made until an independent review by former police commissioner Ken Lay was completed. While Lay is expected to make public his report soon, it has been nearly three years in the making.
That delay has frustrated people on both sides of the debate. As reported in The Sunday Age, a growing group of city residents are joining forces to pressure the government to give a new facility the green light. As one resident notes, “I have a responsibility as … someone who lives in the city to say, ‘It is happening, these people are dying near me, I don’t want them dying’.”
A new facility would do just that. In the recent report on the North Richmond safe-injecting room, a client gave a graphic account of life for him before the facility opened its doors. He remarked that “it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see three or four people dead in the hallways”.
In principle, we fully support a second safe-injecting room in the city. Supervised centres not only save lives but provide a range of other support services that can make a practical and positive impact on people’s wellbeing. The long-term future of such a facility will only be guaranteed however if all sides of the debate don’t just get to voice their concerns but are listened to closely when deciding on where it will be located and how it will be operated.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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