British Columbia

Closure of Vancouver youth detox program 'devastating,' advocates say

Advocates are worried for youth in need of detox treatment after one of the few sites offering non-medical support in Metro Vancouver learned the province is withdrawing its funding.

Province withdraws funding for non-medical youth detox service, says money will be reallocated

Overdose prevention advocate Sarah Blyth says there are already too few services for youth dealing with addiction, and worries the closure of the Directions youth detox program will have dire consequences. (CBC News)

Advocates are worried for youth in need of detox treatment after one of the few sites offering non-medical support in Metro Vancouver learned the province is withdrawing its funding.

Directions Youth Services in Vancouver was told by the province this week that it will no longer fund the centre's youth detox program, meaning it will be forced to stop offering the service by early June. 

Directions provides a range of services for people under the age of 25 who are in crisis or homeless as a result of abuse, neglect, substance use, or mental health challenges. 

Its youth detox program uses what's known as a social detoxification model, which means no medication is used to treat withdrawal. The program includes room and board for up to seven days, meals, counselling and harm-reduction supplies and information, and is low barrier, organizers say. 

"Youth are able to receive our services quickly," said Ciara Frith, a youth detox counsellor, who said she was devastated the program would be closing. 

"I feel like our detox is a very unique resource. There's nothing like it within Vancouver," Frith said, adding that the only other similar resource in the area is a medical detox with a two-week waitlist. 

According to Family Services of Greater Vancouver (FSGV), the organization that runs the detox program, nearly 400 people stayed at the centre in 2018, about one-third of whom stayed more than once.

"It was non-judgmental and it was comfortable. It was home-like, it offered them a place where they could detox from the drugs, feel unwell ... we are an open ear and a compassionate ear for any young person who wants to talk and brainstorm ways to move forward," said Marnie Goldenberg, FSGV vice-president of programs. 

"The entire community of folks who serve young people with substance use challenges and folks who have experienced trauma are going to feel the impact of this closure."

Overdose response advocate Sarah Blyth said the closure is "devastating" to the community, as there are already few places for youth struggling with addiction to go. 

"We see a lot of youth on the streets, that's just a fact," she said. 

"We want to make sure they have every opportunity to get the help they need."

Advocates say that with the toxic drug supply killing hundreds of British Columbians each year, the need for support is only growing.

More than 2,200 people in B.C. died from an illicit-drug overdose in 2021, a record number that many fear will only increase, with the province saying the supply has become increasingly more toxic. 

Directions Youth Services provides a range of services to youth in crisis or experiencing homelessness. (CBC News)

Ministry, health authority respond

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said funding isn't being taken away, but being reallocated instead.

"Nothing is more important than keeping kids safe," Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said in a statement.

"Our government is committed to building a comprehensive system of mental health and addictions care, including investing $97 million through budget 2021 for expanded mental health and substance use care for children, youth and young adults."

In an emailed statement to CBC, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) said the social detox model used at Directions doesn't align with addiction-treatment guidelines from the Ministry of Health and B.C. Centre for Substance Use. 

VCH said its funding will go toward a withdrawal management model, including the procurement of a new two-bed site for youth detox, more access to home and community detox services and the creation of a Downtown Eastside youth outreach team.

It says it expects no gaps in service. 

VCH said the current facility at Directions was being underutilized and only operating five beds instead of the original 10. 

But Blyth said the Directions social detox model is working. 

"Usually when people get used to having a youth facility like Directions, youth know where it is, who is operating it, they build relationships, and relationships save lives," she said. 

Frith says she has seen the program's success first hand.

"We often get phone calls from youth who have used our service in the past, and then they call us in the future and say that they are happy and healthy and living a good life. And it's often all to do with starting with our detox," said Frith. 

"It's what makes it worth it, the reason I do the job."

Directions Youth Services says it will continue offering a shelter program, a youth safe house, daycare for young parents, pre-employment programs and harm-reduction supplies and information.

With files from Janella Hamilton