Claire O’Gorman | Top 40 Under 40 2018
photograph by jared sych at the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre; Hair and makeup by Tamsyn Gagne, Kira Gregory, Amy Maetche and Michelle St. Croix (Artists Within)
Job title: Program Coordinator, Safeworks
Why she’s a 2018 Top 40 Under 40:
A tireless advocate for vulnerable populations, Claire O’Gorman has been instrumental in increasing access to harm-reduction services in the city, including leading the creation and operation of Alberta’s first supervised drug-consumption site.
Claire O’Gorman was living out her childhood dream, working as an acute-care nurse in Vancouver when her ideas on health and needs began to change.
“I loved working with families to address their immediate needs, but then we would send them back to communities or homes where their social needs weren’t being met,” says the born-and-raised Calgarian. “Our health interventions weren’t going to be sustainable for them.”
So O’Gorman took a chance: she scaled back her work to get a master’s in public health. Today, O’Gorman is the program coordinator at Safeworks, which operates Calgary’s supervised drug-consumption site (the first in Alberta) as well as a needle exchange, and other harm-reduction programs for drug users.
When she returned to Calgary in 2014, O’Gorman took a leadership role in organizing the response to the crystal meth and opioid crisis and in creating Safeworks, which started in 2015.
Safeworks’ supervised consumption site opened in a temporary trailer space outside of the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre in October 2017 and moved into a permanent location in the centre in January of this year. Since it first opened, the site has had more than 27,000 client visits — more than 22,300 involving drug consumption. As of last July, staff had responded to 446 overdoses — lives that otherwise may have been lost.
O’Gorman’s work is informed by the concept of harm reduction. It’s an approach intended to reduce the risks associated with drugs for people who are unable or unwilling to stop using.
“When you dig deeper into some of our clients’ stories, you see that it’s actually quite a social failure — that as a community we didn’t care for someone or didn’t offer a service or didn’t provide something in an equitable and inclusive way,” she says.
O’Gorman oversees the day-to-day operation of the consumption site, the outreach team and needle distribution programs, and she works with government representatives, as well as community and business associations. As co-chair of the Calgary Coalition on Supervised Consumption, O’Gorman helped lead a large local study of people who use drugs; the results will help establish future programs for vulnerable populations.
As Safeworks’ program coordinator, she has become the public face for the often-controversial supervised consumption site and for harm reduction more generally. It’s a role she’s well prepared for.
“There’s a misperception that harm-reduction work and things like supervised consumption and needle distribution enable drug use or entrench people in addictive patterns. In fact, it does quite the opposite. It brings people into services, and helps them access health-care providers and social-service providers.”