Right response

Not so long ago, staff at Carole Anne’s Place on MacNab Street were calling 911 for a drug poisoning or overdose at least once a night.

That’s no longer true, now that Canada’s second gender-based safer-use drug space has opened at the drop-in shelter run by the YWCA Hamilton. “We have saved more than 50 lives and had no 911 calls since we opened in April 2022,” says Mary Vaccaro, the YWCA Hamilton liaison who oversees the program. “This is saving the lives of women and non-binary people I know and care about.”

The program, which operates during the hours when all other spaces supporting people who use drugs are closed, is a partnership between the YWCA, Keeping Six Hamilton Harm Reduction Action League, and the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team. Patrons bring their own drug supply and are monitored by trained staff for 20 minutes — though they’re welcome to stay longer. The warm, inviting space is decorated with artwork made by women during their visits.

“Women are actually using it,” says CEO Medora Uppal. “As much as we talk about the need for harm reduction, it feels very vulnerable for women to come in to use and be their authentic selves. Here, they feel they have a voice and a sense of belonging.”

The benefits go beyond responding to the drug poisoning epidemic. Women and non-binary folks forced to use drugs in secret are at high risk of violence from men. The program also connects patrons to wraparound services, including a safe supply clinic, detox services, housing, gender-based counselling, healthcare, and peer-run programming, such as yoga and meditation. It can also create pathways to and options for treatment.

HCF has been a champion of this made-in-Hamilton approach since the beginning through the Community Fund and Women 4 Change. Recently dedicated dollars will provide the program with stability, help to meet its most pressing needs and, ideally, attract additional support.

“The space wouldn’t exist without HCF,” Medora says. “They allowed us to pilot the program and now they’re helping us build for the future.”