With 140 people treated for overdoses in three months, the room has been hailed a success. But a change of government could see the trial scuppered in an instant.
At Melbourne’s first-ever safe-injecting room, people who come here to use heroin sometimes accidentally drop their stash into the large bin that sits against the wall.
When that happens, staff will help the person – strung out and now a little stressed – fish their drugs out of the rubbish. On their way out, they might have a blood test, their first dental check-up in years, or just a hot cup of Milo.
“We enable people to inject in the centre because that’s what they do,” the medical director, Nico Clark, tells Guardian Australia during a recent visit to the North Richmond Community Health Centre. “The majority are dependent on their substances. The purpose is not to be a place that facilitates injection per se, the purpose is to keep people alive.”
The centre is a response to a coroner’s report that noted the 34 heroin-related deaths in the area in 2016. Politically troubled by law and order issues, Daniel Andrews’ government had long opposed the centre, before the threat of losing an inner city byelection to the Greens appeared to prompt an about-face. The byelection late last year was lost, but the plan for a safe injecting room remained.
Medical director Nico Clark says the Victorian Coalition’s continued criticism of the statistics the North Richmond Community Health Centre has released is ‘cheeky’. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian
Now three months into the trial, and with the November state election looming, Clark and the Victorian government have been keen to laud the centre as a success.
There have been 8,000 visits and 140 people had been treated for potentially life-threatening overdoses, according to recent figures. “This was [set up] to save lives, every indication is this facility is saving lives,” the mental health minister, Martin Foley, said as he revealed the statistics late last month.
But the centre’s location on Lennox Street, about 350 metres from the Vietnamese eateries of Victoria Street, and next door to Richmond West primary school, remains a point of contention. The Coalition opposition announced in April it would scrap the trial if it wins the election.
Some 8,000 people have visited Melbourne’s first-ever safe-injecting room since it opened three months ago. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian
For Judy Ryan, who began campaigning for the safe-injecting room about 18 months ago, that pledge is “insane”.
Ryan lives on the other side of Victoria Street in Abbotsford, about 500 metres from the centre. Over her side fence is a small alley where people inject heroin.
On the day Guardian Australia visits, there are a few swabs and syringes buried in the corner. “This would have been chock-a-block [before the centre],” says Ryan, who lost her nephew to an overdose.
Syringes and other drug paraphernalia lie in an alley in North Richmond. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian
She pops her head round the corner to see if anyone is slumped in the alley when she enters her property through her back gate. Countless times she has heard cries for help from the friend of a person who is nonresponsive, she says.
Ryan takes Guardian Australia through a small, labyrinthine network of alleys that she calls “the warzone”, passing through a small estate of low-rise public housing she says is mostly inhabited by older women.
The corners around people’s homes are littered with syringes, spoons and swabs as well as other rubbish. “Imagine taking your last breath here,” says Ryan, who has announced plans to run for Fiona Patten’s Reason party at the state election.
Campaigner Judy Ryan says it would be ‘insane’ for the safe-injecting room to be shuttered. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian