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Belleville, Ont. mayor 'disappointed' by province's response so far to local drug crisis

Belleville mayor Neil Ellis speaks about recent rash of overdoses during a press conference in Belleville, Ont., in this Wednesday, February 7, 2024 handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - City of Belleville) Belleville mayor Neil Ellis speaks about recent rash of overdoses during a press conference in Belleville, Ont., in this Wednesday, February 7, 2024 handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - City of Belleville)
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BELLEVILLE, ONT. -

The mayor of Belleville, Ont., says he is disappointed the province has not yet committed to funding a health and social-services hub and a detox centre urgently needed in the community amid an ongoing illicit drug crisis.

The funding request was made after Belleville's emergency crews responded to 17 drug overdoses in just 24 hours earlier this month, prompting the mayor to declare a local state of emergency.

"The answer was basically: 'You have to wait,"' Neil Ellis told a news conference on Tuesday. "If we have to do it by ourselves, that's what we will do."

The city had specifically asked the province for $2 million in funding to help kick-start construction of a new centralized hub that will offer addictions and mental-health services, plus money to open a detox centre.

Premier Doug Ford had promised last week the province would support Belleville, acknowledging "they need an influx of money right away."

Ellis said he met last week with Todd Smith, the region's MPP, and Michael Tibollo, the associate minister of mental health and addictions, but their discussions left him frustrated.

"I was told we need to formulate a mental-health and addictions strategy," Ellis said. "There was no support, as of now, for our two asks. And it was noted that the capital for the hub would be a tough ask."

Ellis said the province did provide more than $200,000 in response to an unrelated request from the local Canadian Mental Health Association office, but that was not enough.

"I'm not in any way disparaging or disrespecting the efforts of our provincial partners in their response to our calls for help in the past weeks," he said. "I do welcome that money, it will be used well in our community. But we need a lot more money."

A spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the province is providing more than $216,000 in one-time funding to immediately increase the presence of first responders in Belleville's downtown core, and to increase staffing at local support and outreach services.

"This funding is in addition to the $35 million our government have invested in mental health and addictions support services in the Belleville area this year," Hannah Jensen wrote in a statement.

Jensen also said a submission from the Canadian Mental Health Association Hastings Prince Edward, "for a project that will take years to be operational," remains under review.

Belleville's mayor said city council will now have to consider taking the additional $2 million needed for the new hub from the city's operating budget. He said the city is committed to building the hub -- where unhoused people can access food, showers, primary health care, substance-use supports and other services -- with or without the province's help.

Ellis urged the province to "step up" and help all communities across the province struggling with addictions and homelessness.

"The city has only so many tools in our box," he said, noting that Belleville has been asking the province for help since last November, when 90 overdoses were reported in just one week.

Since the rash of toxic drug poisonings on Feb. 6, Belleville's emergency crews continue to respond to overdose calls every day, officials told Tuesday's press conference.

An online dashboard with data from Hastings Prince Edward Public Health shows that Hastings-Quinte Paramedic Services responded to 371 opioid-related calls in 2023.

There were 252 emergency department visits related to opioid poisonings in that time period and 50 suspected drug-related deaths.

Ellis said the city also needs to work on long-term solutions to the crisis, which include securing transitional and affordable housing for the estimated 200 homeless people in the area -- a population he said is expected to grow.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2024.

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