When GuelphToday first spoke to recovering addict Donny Hay in the summer of 2018 he was frustrated and saddened by the rising number of overdose deaths in the city and the toll street-level drug abuse was taking on the community.
“I love this city,” said Hay. “These people are someone’s brother, sister, husband, wife, mother, father, son or daughter. These people are my friends.”
Hay shared his own story of addiction that started at the tender age of 10 and ended after a 35-year struggle that nearly claimed his life.
He was an unlikely social activist given his previous lifestyle of crime and drug abuse but he started a petition to raise awareness of the problem and gather support to establish a medical detox centre in the city.
“I’m convinced this is a solution,” he said. “This is a viable option and I never pretended it’s the be all to end all because it’s not but if we’re going to start somewhere this is where we’ve got to start with the street-level drug users.”
One of his earliest supporters was Gail Hoekstra, executive director at the Guelph Drop In Centre.
“I want to support Donny because you never know where someone’s heart and passion might take something,” said Hoekstra. “A lot of great things have happened just because one person stuck to it. You can almost see it play out and at one point we’ll be doing a ribbon cutting.”
Hoekstra is supporting Hay’s campaign as a member of an action committee called ASNOW and as of now they are 10 strong and growing with members from a variety of disciplines and experience.
“I am very hopeful because I started as a single man but look how far it has come,” said Hay. “One man with no money and I have all these people listening. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Other ASNOW Committee members include Jaya James, executive director of HOPE House, Kimberly Lyons, communication and events lead for HOPE House, Raechelle Devereaux, executive director of the Guelph Community Health Centre, Const. Mark O’Connell from the Guelph Police Service, Geoff Allen, from Guelph Rotary, Danny Liu, community pharmacist and mental health advocate, Matt Sheehy, security consultant and campaign advisor and Denese Renaud, campaign advocate and coordinator.
The committee visited Grey Bruce Addiction Treatment Services in Owen Sound at the end of November to learn about the medical detox facility they have serving their community. They toured the facility and met with the manager of addiction services Dan Purdon and nurse practitioner Robyn Nocilla .
It was an emotional experience for Hay who was reminded of his many experiences in rehab facilities.
“I was apprehensive at first when they opened the door,” said Hay. “I was afraid but I had no reason to be and when I walked in I got really comfortable. I almost started crying. Most detox centres have tension but I didn’t feel that there. I saw hope in the eyes of people there.”
Purdon and Nocilla shared their experiences and observations and reminded the team that a medical detox by itself is not enough.
“If you are talking about just an independent detox without housing and continued support it’s not going to work,” said committee member Danny Lui. “Addicts are very vulnerable after they detox even more vulnerable than before they enter treatment.”
Hoekstra has witnessed first hand the vicious cycle of addiction, detox and relapse through her work at the Drop In Centre.
“I have my own thoughts about it,” said Hoekstra. “Alone it is not a sole solution. I think it should be built into a supportive housing idea with opportunities for employment and access to healthy food but I do want to support Donny and I never want to let my ego get to the point where I think I know all the answers.”
The visit to Owen Sound helped them to visualize the type of facility that could work in Guelph and plans are in the works for a visit to another centre in London early in the New Year.
“It is run by the Salvation Army but the funding is through the Ministry of Health,” said Hay. “It’s a medical detox with a treatment program and supportive housing. It’s exactly what we are looking at.”
They have invited Mayor Cam Guthrie to join them.
“He wants to go to London with us,” said Hay. “He said that on two occasions.”
The committee met on Dec 12 at the Guelph Community Health Centre to explore options for public funding under the new Ontario Health Team system announced by Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott last month.
ASNOW’s newest member Raechelle Devereaux, executive director of GCHC, told them that under the new system, they are developing a strategic steering council that will establish a strategic plan for the community.
“I don’t want to be seen as taking this over because I am a new member but I want to have that context when I get into talking about the potential and what I think is the path forward to have health funding,” said Devereaux. “From my perspective it is very important that health equity and acute needs of vulnerable and marginalized populations including a medical detox make their way as a priority into the strategic plan.”
Those are hopeful words combined with a growing strength in numbers.
“Numbers aren’t my game,” said Hay. “I stick with my strengths and I want to see that kind of hope in Guelph. That’s all I have wanted since I started this. I want to see the city get better and with a treatment centre like they have in Owen Sound, I think that is possible. Is it a guarantee? No. Nothing is a guarantee but it shows that it is possible.”