Plan for second safe injecting room opposite Flinders Street station

Melbourne’s second drug injecting room is expected to be located in an art deco building opposite Flinders Street Station and near the popular al fresco city dining laneway Degraves Street.

The former Yooralla building at 244-248 Flinders Street, between Elizabeth and Swanston streets, was chosen by the state government because it is located in a drug injecting and overdose hotspot, according to sources.

The Yooralla building at 248 Flinders Street, Melbourne.

An independent review panel last year recommended a second injecting room be established in the City of Melbourne – where there were 51 heroin-related deaths between January 2015 and September 2019 – to take the pressure off the existing injecting room in North Richmond.

The Department of Health and Human Services originally identified cohealth community centre on Victoria Street, near the Queen Victoria market, as its preferred site, which sparked concerns from residents, market stall holders and Melbourne City Council.

Former Victoria police chief commissioner Ken Lay was appointed to undertake an independent consultation process for a second injecting room.

The Flinders Street site was one of several identified by Mr Lay.

Sources confirmed to The Age that 244-248 Flinders Street was now the government’s preferred option. The government wants the injecting room to be as close as possible to where drug activity is concentrated.

The former Yooralla building also appeals because there is space for allied services such as drug and alcohol counselling and homelessness and mental health services, which would also be available to the broader community.

However the site is likely to be controversial with Melbourne City Council and nearby traders who have already been impacted by the pandemic and construction of the nearby Town Hall underground station, part of the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project.

The president of Residents 3000, Rafael Camillo, said Degraves Street was a famous street which attracted a lot of tourism. He said the CBD was in a delicate position after the pandemic.

“If we are trying to bring back tourism and more people to live in the city, it is not the time to be building an injecting room,” Mr Camillo said. He said there should be more investigation into where drug users were travelling from with a view to establishing injecting rooms in those areas.

The Salvation Army’s Major Brendan Nottle said he was unaware of the proposed site for the injecting room but Flinders Street made sense given the high number of injecting drug users around Flinders and Elizabeth streets.

“IV drug users are a really difficult cohort to engage so if you can provide a location where they will attend and provide a range of supports for them that’s a good outcome.”

Darren Williamson from Barber on Degraves was concerned it would be a disaster for the area.

“We already have a a lot of ice addicts in Degraves Street and if you have people bringing heroin into the area it is going to multiply the problem,” he said.

The manager of a Flinders Street restaurant, who asked not to be named, said while he understood the need for a safe injecting room, but he was concerned it would make the area unsafe for families who came to his restaurant.

“We have already been impacted with the footpath narrowed due to the Metro Tunnel project and an injecting room would mean people would be loitering at all hours,” he said.

Asked about the location of a second injecting room, a government spokesperson said the decision had not been finalised.

“With around one person a month dying from heroin overdose in the City of Melbourne, there is a real and growing need for a health facility of this kind in the central city.”

Ambulance Victoria data shows opioid-related ambulance attendances across the City of Melbourne were up 49 per cent in the five years to 2019, and had doubled in the CBD over the same period.

Plans for a new injecting room come after a review chaired by Professor Margaret Hamilton last year found the injecting room in North Richmond had safely managed 3200 overdoses and saved “at least” 21 people’s lives since it opened.

The government extended the trial for another three years.

However it continues to divide residents and school parents in North Richmond, many of whom want the injecting room moved from its location next to Richmond West primary school.

In March a body was discovered outside the school, and in an unrelated incident last week a man was arrested after allegedly trespassing on school grounds armed with a knife.

The review recommended a second site, saying North Richmond was the busiest supervised injecting room in Australia, with 4350 clients registering since it opened.

However Melbourne City Council complained the council had not been properly consulted over the original site near Queen Victoria Market, saying it was “inappropriate and inadequate”.

Cohealth Central City was the original site flagged for Melbourne’s second safe injecting room.Credit:Justin McManus

It agreed to write to Mental Health Minister Martin Foley and Mr Lay asking that the site be dropped from the government’s plans.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the council would await the findings of the independent process.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said it was “madness” to open a second injecting facility when the site in Richmond was still the subject of community anger.

“They haven’t got it right in Richmond, so why would you take that same flawed model to Melbourne’s CBD?” he said.

“The heart of Melbourne is struggling enough.”

Yarra Drug and Health Forum chairman Peter Wearne said an injecting room in the Flinders street area of Melbourne – if true – would be a sound and humane decision.

“It would be in the heart of the street drug activity of the CBD and provide a much needed health response to people with entrenched drug problems,” he said. “It’s not just about injecting safely but providing opportunities for people to get their health needs looked after and their dignity restored.”

With Paul Sakkal

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