Angst over injecting room site

By David Schout

The Andrews government has nominated a CBD site for the state’s second medically supervised injecting room (MSIR), but a number of key stakeholders have raised concerns about the location. 

Community health facility Cohealth, situated near the Queen Victoria Market, is the state government’s preferred pick for Victoria’s second injecting room.

An independent report found Victoria’s one and only facility in North Richmond saved at least 21 lives in its first 18 months and needs help dealing with demand.

While it only suggested the City of Melbourne should house the next facility, the government went a step further and nominated Cohealth, located near the corner of Victoria and Elizabeth streets, despite not consulting with the council. 

Angered by the lack of consultation, the City of Melbourne then swiftly met with the state government to question the rationale behind the site, and suggest alternative locations.

It is believed the council’s key concerns surround the impact on local residents and the market, which it has committed $250 million towards renewing. 

“The City of Melbourne has already met with the Victorian Government and provided feedback on the potential for alternate sites and I will make sure the consultation process continues over the coming months,” Lord Mayor Sally Capp said.

“I will make sure local residents, workers and businesses have their views heard on this proposal from the Victorian Government.”

Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood put forward a motion at the June 23 Future Melbourne Committee meeting to formally reject the site.

The motion, due to be heard after the July edition of CBD News had been published, stipulated that the close proximity to the market made the site inappropriate, and instead requested the Victorian Government develop a heroin and ice taskforce.

But a struggle between Town Hall and Spring St looms should the government stand firm in its belief the northern CBD site is a best-fit.

While it has committed to keeping an open mind to other locations in the upcoming six-month consultation period, it is believed Cohealth’s CBD facility best matches the criteria set out in the report chaired by Professor Margaret Hamilton AO.

“This review has shown the safe injecting room (in North Richmond) is doing exactly what it is designed to do – saving lives and changing lives,” Minister for Mental Health Martin Foley said.

“If in our work consulting with the local council, they locate a different site that also meets the criteria set by that panel, then we’ll remain open to that.”

“We’ll be conducting a thorough consultation process that will examine the criteria the independent review set out – including a range of local factors like health and social service providers and expectations of local residents.”

Queen Victoria Market CEO Stan Liacos told CBD News the announcement caught management “completely by surprise”, and said the close proximity to the market would be cause for concern.

“This proposed location will no doubt be a matter of concern to the 700-plus day and night market traders operating at the market,” he said, confirming they would ensure traders’ views were heard in upcoming dealings with the state government. 

Debate since the opening of the North Richmond facility has often been vexed, and something the Andrews government has been forced to strongly defend.

Cr Capp, however, said the council’s key issue was not to do with the wider effectiveness of injecting facilities, but rather the government’s nominated facility. 

“There’s broad agreement within the City of Melbourne that it is critically important to find the most appropriate site for a new medically supervised injecting room,” she said. 

“We acknowledge that these facilities save lives on the inside but we need to ensure that any issues outside the doors do not impact negatively on locals.”

One of those locals is Martin Mulvihill, who resides next door in the affordable housing apartments above Drill Hall. 

A retired teacher, Mr Mulvihill has worked tirelessly to establish a garden in the Drill Hall’s forecourt, something he said has had an extraordinarily positive affect on vulnerable local residents.

Having taught in troubled communities he is not at odds with the “overwhelming evidence” behind safe injecting rooms, but questioned the state government’s proposed location. 

“Some residents have said they’re very concerned, and fearful about safety,” he said.

“They’ve heard all the stories from North Richmond. My concern is the garden itself. I’m fairly convinced in my mind that if we have an injecting site, this will become an area where deals could be done or, like in North Richmond when people can’t get in, an overflow area. But one way or another I think it will change the dynamics.”

Mr Mulvihill believed the government’s motives were well-founded. 

“The Premier is right, life is a moral paramount in a society like ours. It’s a chief value I suppose in a democracy.”

However, he said the nomination of Cohealth was rushed and urged it to seriously assess the potential impact on his neighbours, arguing there was a need to balance “saving life and nourishing life”.

“We’ve got very vulnerable people around here. In terms of how they feel about the area and their safety, particularly those with a disability, I think they should look at those factors.”

Cohealth chief executive Nicole Bartholomeusz said they stood ready to work with both Lord Mayor Capp and the Victorian Government.

"The proposed facility will improve our local community by moving drug use off the streets and providing critical support to those who desperately need our compassion and assistance," she said.

The state government is expected to release further details in July about the upcoming six-month consultation period to determine the best site within the City of Melbourne •

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