By Matt Woodley
Fiona Patten, the politician who helped pave the way for the Richmond safe-injecting room, has all but ruled out relocating the facility before the end of its two-year trial, despite resident concerns.
Reports of public drug use, trafficking and antisocial behaviour have plagued the safe-injecting room since the trial began in 2018, prompting local residents to arrange community meetings to air grievances and try to change the situation.
The most recent meeting, held last week, attracted a standing-room-only crowd of around 150 residents and was focused on presenting possible solutions to what many attendees said is a growing problem.
In an effort to assuage community concerns, the Department of Health and Human Services recently sent a letter to local residents vowing to implement more frequent sweeps to remove needles, more outreach teams, improved lighting, and an increased security and police presence.
However, while broadly supportive of the room itself – a straw poll at the meeting revealed only three people were in favour of closing it altogether – the majority of attendees still voted to move it from its current location – which is a residential area next door to a community centre and primary school.
Despite the concerns, Reason Party MLC Fiona Patten, who introduced the Bill that led to the room’s trial and attended last week’s meeting, told newsGP circumstances would improve with longer opening hours and that there are ‘very good reasons’ that support its current location.
‘Most of the deaths related to drug overdoses [in Melbourne] happened in a 300m2 area, and that centre is in the middle of it,’ she said.
‘We looked at other locations, we looked at other opportunities, [but] what we saw and what we heard from Sydney was that having it located adjacent to a health centre would enable people to seek further treatment far more easily.
‘[However], I appreciate the concerns that the community have. This is a two-year trial, and I think relocating the centre will obviously be one of the questions asked in the ongoing review.’
Ms Patten also believes the trial has been a success. In particular, she said there have been fewer deaths and reduced ambulance and police callouts since the trial began, but did concede there is also room for improvement.
‘Some of the complaints and what we were hearing the other night could be seen as a success of the centre – that people are actually using it, that people are seeking the services of it – but that is [also] increasing the traffic in the area, and that has not been properly managed,’ she said.
‘We want people to be able to access the centre, but we also do not accept bad behaviour or drug dealing around the centre. Neither of those activities were ever deemed acceptable, and they must be addressed and we must continue to remain vigilant in that regard.
‘There had always been an anticipation of good police presence around the centre and around the area that possibly hasn’t been as good as it could have been.’
Ms Patten also advocates for more mental health outreach work in the area, a concept supported by Yarra City councillor Stephen Jolly, who has been the driving force behind the meetings and says many in the community are ‘pulling their hair out’ due to the social issues.
Cr Jolly told newsGP he believes initiatives such as Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program need to be enacted soon otherwise community sentiment towards the safe-injecting room will further sour.
‘There’s an increasing minority that want it to be moved, and there’s an increasing minority that want it closed down, out of desperation,’ he said.
‘If we don’t come along with extra programs to fix the problems, if we just leave it at the injecting facility, it will mentally demoralise people.
‘We have to have further measures to … try and get these drug users off the street, and to also get these people into programs that are going to help them break the addiction cycle.’
Aside from more regular and obvious police patrols, residents have also suggested removing the needle exchange from the centre, as it allows drug users to inject outside the facility. They also want police to have the ability to arrest suspected drug dealers who are taking advantage of the current exclusion zone.
Other less popular suggestions floated at the community meeting included legalising drugs, allowing people on parole to use the facility, creating a designated ‘safe zone’ for drug dealers away from the school, and providing a transport service to ferry drug users out of the area once they have accessed the room.
Ms Patten supports removing the exchange, but cautioned against focusing too much attention on short-term solutions.
‘This is not a short-term problem. We’ve had massive drug use in the Richmond area for 30 years,’ she said.
‘The centre’s doing remarkable work. I know they are the lives of drug users … but they are people’s brothers, sisters, daughters, mothers, fathers and we are really changing those lives for the better.’
The meeting concluded with a resolution to establish a street committee that represents locals’ concerns and pushes for further drug reform, including more injecting rooms across Melbourne and greater access to rehabilitation and mental health facilities.
Another event has been slated for next week at the Richmond public housing estate across the road from the safe-injecting facility.