YWCA Hamilton’s New Safer Use Drug Space offers a haven for women who use substances

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A new program at YWCA Hamilton is helping to save the lives of some of our community’s most vulnerable people.

On April 23rd, YWCA Hamilton officially opened a Safer Use Drug Space in Carole Anne’s Place (CAP), our low-barrier, overnight drop-in centre for those who identify as women. The Safer Use Drug Space provides a controlled, welcoming, and supervised place for women accessing CAP or living in the Transitional Living Program at YWCA Hamilton to use substances, without having to leave the building.

The space, which is intentionally designed to support women and non-binary people, is the first of its kind in Hamilton and only the second gender-specific consumption space in Canada. It’s operated in partnership with Keeping Six, a community-based organization that advocates for people who use drugs, and HAMSMaRT, the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team, and funded by the Hamilton Community Foundation and Women 4 Change.

“It’s been pretty transformational for women who use drugs who we support,” said Mary Vaccaro, PhD Candidate at the McMaster University School of Social Work and the YWCA liaison who helps oversee the program.  “It really allows us to support them with where they’re at in their substance use.”

The Safer Use Drug Space operates every night from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m.. Patrons are able to bring their own drugs into the space, and are monitored for 20 minutes after consumption by both a YWCA Hamilton Staff member and a worker from Keeping Six. During the first month of the program, 50 unique women ranging from 18-52 accessed the program.

Mary says the space has been specifically designed to feel more like a living room and less like a clinical environment. There are lounge chairs and couches for patrons to use, and the walls have been decorated with colouring pages and art completed by women who have used the program.

During the first month of the program, staff oversaw 189 supervised injections. Throughout that time, there was only one drug poisoning event requiring oxygen. There were no doses of naloxone administered, no calls for an ambulance, and no calls to the police.

Prior to the Safer Use Drug Space at CAP, patrons who use drugs would have to either hide their drug use, or go outside to consume their drugs in the street. Both of these situations would leave both women and YWCA Hamilton Staff in vulnerable positions, particularly in the case of drug poisoning.

“It’s just such a shift from the way we’ve done things in the past,” Mary said. “There’s such an enhanced safety doing things this way.”

Mary also points out that the program has also allowed staff to build trust and relationships with CAP patrons, in order to connect them with additional supports. In addition to clean needles, 166 Safer Smoking kits, 44 Naloxone kits, and 9 pregnancy tests have been handed out through the Safer Use Drug Space.

“It’s a point of connection to healthcare and other types of services,” Mary said. “They’re being intentionally supported. It’s gone better than I could have imagined.”

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