There were people from all sorts of local agencies, from health care to education to law enforcement, but one mother brought the purpose of the gathering into sharp focus.
Michelle, who asked that only her first name be used, became tearful when she told the packed room Wednesday morning that her 13-year-old son is battling a drug addiction.
The meeting, held at the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit office in Brockville, was meant as a consultation toward developing a Brockville municipal drug strategy.
Michelle, who expressed frustration at the reach of drug dealers despite the efforts of local youth programs, later said her son, who developed his addiction last year, has been in and out of jail.
“I’m glad they’re finally doing something and acknowledging that there’s a problem,” she said during a break in the meeting.
“I still don’t know if they actually have a full grasp of what’s going on within the youth (community).”
The drive toward a municipal drug strategy became more urgent after the death, on Sept. 13, 2018, of 33-year-old Damian Sobieraj at Hardy Park drew increased attention to youth crime.
A judge is expected to deliver a verdict Feb. 19 on the guilt or innocence of a teenage girl charged with manslaughter in Sobieraj’s death.
Brockville Police Staff Sgt. Tom Fournier told the crowd that every major crime the police force has dealt with in the last three years has at least a drug component to it.
But the current drug crisis can’t be tackled by law enforcement alone, said the sergeant.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Fournier.
When opioids took the place of other drugs over the past dozen years or more, “the addiction was so much stronger,” said Fournier, adding this led to an increase in violent crime.
Compounding the problem is a lack of treatment facilities, he added, and finally, crystal methamphetamine has entered the local scene.
“It (crystal meth) is what makes people paranoid,” said Fournier.
Fournier characterized users as the victims of organized crime, which uses a network of suppliers, runners and dealers to target vulnerable people. And the only refuge police can offer these victims is a warm, dry cell for the night.
“There is no shelter that we can bring them to,” said Fournier.
Other problems created by the crisis include homelessness, said the sergeant, adding some people have been sleeping under the bandshell at Hardy Park. Human trafficking is another tragic consequence, as criminals force victims to “work off” drug debts.
Meanwhile, residents are alarmed to find needles discarded in their neighbourhoods, prostitution happening in driveways and sometimes, drug users knocking on people’s doors thinking they are going to see a dealer.
“We’re finding violent crime in neighbourhoods that never had it before,” said Fournier.
The ultimate goal of a municipal drug strategy should be eliminating the demand for drugs by preventing people, especially youth, from feeling the need to turn to them in the first place, he said.
“The answer’s not throwing everybody in jail,” added Fournier.
Jennifer Adams, harm reduction co-ordinator at the health unit, said her efforts should also be seen as only one component in a broader strategy.
“Naloxone is not the answer to this problem either,” she said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle.”
Three significant barriers to users seeking help are fear of stigmatization from health care providers, fear of the police and fear of Family and Children’s Services, said Adams.
Participants in the consultation included Amelia Foley, co-chair of Brockville’s Youth Advisory Council.
The Grade 12 student at Brockville Collegiate Institute has seen the effects of youth crime in her own school environment.
“It’s definitely worrisome,” she said.
“It’s concerning that it could be my friends that could be victimized.”
The youth council could help by setting up events to raise awareness among young people of the resources available if they are struggling, added Foley.
“I don’t think we know the resources that are going on,” she said.
Naomi McNeill, a health promoter with the Canadian Cancer Society, facilitated the event, which included a brainstorming session. McNeill and Health Unit officials will compile the suggestions and return to the community with a report in the coming weeks.
McNeill said some immediate needs emerging from the meeting include a warming shelter, with local church groups providing assistance.
Better services for youth and counselling in schools are other high priorities, said McNeill, who hopes to have a plan before Brockville council before its budget process wraps up in early March.
Going into Wednesday’s event, McNeill sought to inject a hopeful note into what remains a bleak situation.
“If we all come together and work together … they may seem like major problems but they can be solved,” she said.