Local harm reduction expert Sonja Burke leads a team that serves hundreds of people across London who are experiencing addiction with a safe space, support services and access to medical supplies.
One of the toughest issues to tackle
By Scott Taylor, Special to United Way
As London continues efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness, one of the toughest issues to tackle is addiction.
Sonja Burke, Regional HIV/AIDS Connection Director of Harm Reduction Services, is a local expert. Burke and her team serve hundreds of people experiencing addiction in our community with a safe space, access to medical supplies, and support services.
“We see anywhere from 85 to 100 visits a day in our fixed location at Carepoint Consumption Treatment Service,” says Burke, noting that the service runs 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. “So we’re able to connect with people in multiple ways.”
“There’s this perception that people struggling with poverty, housing or mental health are the only ones struggling with addiction and that’s not true. I can assure you we deliver services to the north, south, east and west of this city.”
The organization offers many other services, including mobile visits, crisis intervention, counselling and support groups, and works to ensure that the people they help are treated as more than just statistics.
Still, Burke acknowledges that there is a stigma towards people addicted to drugs that makes it difficult for others to empathize.
“There’s this perception that people struggling with poverty, housing or mental health are the only ones struggling with addiction and that’s not true,” says Burke. “I can assure you we deliver services to the north, south, east and west of this city.”
The perception surrounding addiction is very much based in stigma and a lack of understanding around what leads people to struggle with addiction.
“It’s common to blame and judge people without understanding the reality that people don’t have access to supports that help address the trauma that led to the addiction,” says Burke.
“Addiction is all around us,” she continues. “But we often forget that the person is someone’s daughter, father or mother. Our work is about shifting people’s attitudes and views.”
Another controversial issue that has been in the news in London and elsewhere is supervised consumption sites. Regardless of where the City and the Middlesex-London Health Unit say it would do the most good, there has always been a movement to block the location. The logic of these arguments is lost on Burke.
“We’ve done a number of community consultations and the London Free Press has done surveys and the general consensus, in my opinion, is that people understand the need for support and services for people who are struggling,” says Burke. ”But really, it’s about not in my neighbourhood, not in my back yard. I hear that time and time again. If we could just put it here and not there, it would be fine.”
The challenge, she pointed out, is that a supervised consumption site is needed where the people who would use it are living.
“Some of the benefits of consumption and treatments services are it reduces the number of individuals who are publicly injecting, it reduces the number of discarded syringes, it increases the likelihood that somebody will get connected to community services, and it increases the ability to actually be connected to medical care and a medical facility.”
Taking this option away from the people who need it simply serves to marginalize them further.
“In the end,” says Burke, “the foundation of the work we do is that every person has value.”
Scott Taylor is a former local journalist with lived experience of poverty. He moderated United Way’s panel discussion Bringing #UNIGNORABLE Issues into Focus. Read our other stories.
“When someone comes in to the shelter, they’re typically in crisis because they’re experiencing homelessness. After we help stabilize them in the moment, then we start to work on a coordinated housing plan.”