Unfriendly Neighbourhood: Residents say safe injecting room has brought crime to their doorsteps

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By MICHAEL PATANE
An increase in anti-social behaviour near the North Richmond injecting room is harming the mental health and safety of residents and their children, the community warns.
Crime Statistics Agency data shows a rise in assaults, robberies and incidents of stalking, harassment and threatening behaviour in the block around the injecting room, since it opened in July last year on a two-year trial.
One resident of seven years, Kylie* recalls her three-year-old daughter witnessing a brutal fight between two drug-affected men on the corner of Victoria and Highett Streets.
“Two guys were literally smashing each other in the face until their faces split open,” she said.
“We were on one side of the traffic lights and they were fighting on the other side. After the fight one of them got into a waiting car. It seemed like some kind of payback.
“That kind of violence, you struggle to explain to any small child.”
Yet Kylie was just relieved that no knives were involved in the fight.
Richmond residents fear increased drug use in the area is exposing children to danger. PHOTO: Facebook, MRAC.
Her daughter has also seen people passed out on the footpath, dealing and injecting drugs, being resuscitated and yelling and brawling.
She is concerned exposure to anti-social and drug-taking behaviour will harm her children’s mental health.
“They see things that they should never see,” she said.
“I feel poorly prepared to be explaining this to little ones.”
Her daughter has already started asking why people inject and why people are being so aggressive.
Kylie is now “much more cautious and anxious about walking through the area”, which is the easiest way to access the shops or take her children to the park.
“There is a direct risk every time you pass somebody who’s unstable and erratic, that something is going to happen,” she said.
“I see plenty of bad things, eventually something bad is going to happen to us.”
She is unsure if she will send her daughter to the local primary school, which is next-door to the injecting room, even though its security facilities have been upgraded. Her daughter has already told her that she won’t be able to walk to school by herself.
The Safe Injecting Room is located next door to Richmond West Primary School, which has boosted security since it opened.
Similar experiences have been documented on the resident action committee webpage.
“I am frightened to walk on Lennox Street especially going to the health centre as I have again experienced people high on drugs having drug fits,” one resident posted.
“I cannot walk around the estate grounds without seeing drug deals taking place, drug users passed out on the grounds.”
People have also posted photos of discarded syringes and drug swabs in the street and human faeces on the footpath to community Facebook pages.
In response, Yarra City council has committed additional funds towards cleaning up the streets around the centre. More than 10,400 human faeces and 10,000 syringes were picked up in North Richmond last year.
Drug paraphernalia discarded in the street has become a common sight around Richmond. PHOTO: Facebook
Yarra City councillor Amanda Stone believes residents’ concerns are “legitimate”, yet she also thinks “the fear, the stress and the anxiety has been allowed to fester”.
“If it had been responded to [by State Government] and some basic concrete actions taken earlier it may not have got to the point that its got to,” Cr Stone said.
“There’s obviously a lot of fear about this, and it’s actually sabotaging the goodwill because, by not engaging with potential problems, the problems are developing a life of their own.
“People are getting more frustrated and they feel that nobody’s listening to them and feel things are getting worse.”
Yarra City Cr Amanda Stone wants improved communication with residents to help abate community fears being generated by the injecting room.
Monash University Associate Professor in Law Kate Seear believes the reaction occurring throughout the community could be the result of the stigma attached to drugs and drug rehabilitation facilities.
“We know for sure that drug use, particularly injecting drug use, attracts considerable stigma, that manifests in a whole range of ways,” she said.
“It’s quite pervasive and deeply entrenched in the community that people who use drugs are actively discriminated against.
“When people who might live or work in the community see other people that they perceive as unsavoury or different, stigma is very pervasive because people make assumptions about others on that basis and become fearful of crime or whatever it may be.”
Cr Stone has reinforced this, arguing the suburb of Richmond has always had a street-based drug issue.
“People were shooting up in the playground of the primary school, they were shooting up in the car park, they were shooting up in the street,” she said.
“There is something about the fact that the centre is there that has focused people’s attention.”
This attention towards anti-social behaviour outside the facility distracts from the life saving work going on inside the facility.
The centre has managed more than 1,130 overdoes in its first 12 months, according to data released in June.
It has also carried out more than 3,300 health and social support interventions and placed more than 250 people on opioid replacement treatment or similar programs.
Safe Injecting Room staff say the centre is saving lives, but residents say drug use is still spilling onto the streets of Richmond.
A representative from the injecting room reaffirmed the “life-saving” work happening inside the facility. They also explained that their location, which is next door to a community health centre, enables easy referral for dental and hepatitis treatment, which more than 40 people have started.
CSA data has also shown an eight percent drop in drug offences in the area around the injecting room.
Yet as the trial enters its second year, the mood amongst the residents remains sombre, and habits are changing. One parent said she no longer lets her children go to the park by themselves, while other residents, some who have lived in the area for years, are contemplating moving if the room is made permanent.
“If you don’t feel safe letting your kids walk to school or taking them to the park, it’s not somewhere you want to live and raise a family,” one parent said.
Kylie said the injecting room was a blight on an otherwise liveable neighbourhood.
“Everything is right in that zone, the GP, the school, the maternal health [centre], the parkland,” she said.
“That’s where my kid wants to learn to ride a bike.”
Kylie is one of many residents who are lobbying for the injecting room to be moved to a more industrial area.
Yarra City councillor Stephen Jolly supports this, arguing that the government placed the injecting room in the wrong position.
Medically supervised drug use has saved more than 1,000 lives in the first 12 months of the Richmond centre’s opening.
“They should have put it out on Victoria Street where most people are buying their drugs or to the west, where the area is a little bit more commercial and industrial,” he said.
“If they’d done that they wouldn’t have half the issues they’re having at the moment.”
Cr Jolly also believes reforms to drug policy such as decriminalising drugs should be introduced.
He has also called for more supervised injecting facilities to be located elsewhere so “Richmond is not carrying the load for the rest of the city”.
The state government is committed to fulfilling the two-year trial, which could be extended for a further three years. Minister for Mental Health Martin Foley has been contacted for comment, but has not responded.
In April, the government committed to improving lighting at a nearby housing estate and car park. Extra street sweeps to remove used syringes were also promised.
In a statement released by the government earlier this year, Richmond MP Richard Wynne said those measures showed the government was responding to community concerns.
“The medically supervised injecting room trial was an important first step in addressing an issue that the community has dealt with for many years,” the statement read.
“Now we’re listening to the concerns of nearby housing residents and going further.”
However, Richmond residents say they have not seen any changes in the streets, nor have they seen an increased police presence.
“None of the incidents I’ve seen have involved a police car being anywhere near,” Kylie said.
“I probably see 20 drug deals before I see a police car drive by, and we walk those streets most days.
“Richmond was never like this until quite recently.”
 
*The names of residents mentioned in this story have been changed.