Suicides, overdoses and need spike for street youth, agencies say

With many services still suspended, the Old Strathcona Youth Society (OSYS) and the Community Health Empowerment and Wellness (CHEW) project are in need of resources after ramping up operations to fill the gap.

'They’ve already got so many barriers, and then we’re throwing in Covid as well — that’s pretty hard for them'

Corey Wyness says the drugs have become dirtier in the wake of the coronavirus. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Suicides, overdoses and the need for critical services have all spiked for youth living on Edmonton streets since the pandemic hit, frontline workers say.

With many services still suspended, the Old Strathcona Youth Society (OSYS) and the Community Health Empowerment and Wellness (CHEW) project are in need of resources after ramping up operations to fill the gap.

"Youth literally shared with us that if they were not able to access food here, they don't know when they would have eaten," said Rohan Dave, project coordinator of OSYS that has been providing support to homeless and transient youth facing barriers for more than 20 years.

North of the river, CHEW, an agency that supports LGBTQ2S youth, has seen an increase in overdoses and suicides — losing five youth since March.

"They've already got so many barriers, and then we're throwing in COVID as well — that's pretty hard for them," said CHEW's project manager, Corey Wyness.

"But hope is always there. We lose a youth that's really struggling and doesn't want to struggle anymore. But there's 10 others that are finding hope on that day too. 

"And that's what you've got to hang on to. And celebrate those youth that we've lost, celebrate their lives and the good things ... Remember some of the fun times we had here, having a dance party or doing drag."

He said part of the problem is the financial stress caused by the inability to panhandle after the pandemic emptied the streets. 

In their new space, run largely on community donations, pandemic protocols forced CHEW to take in just 12 youth at a time as need ballooned.

'The drugs became really, really dirty'

Wyness said drugs have increasingly become more dangerous as borders and airports closed, and more space was required for youth in need of a safe place to come down. 

"The drugs became really, really dirty," Wyness said. "They were cut with things like fentanyl, carfentanil, other chemicals. And so the highs were way worse and the come downs were even more terrible … We're still seeing that impact on a daily basis where youth that last week were these bright, bubbly, incredible human beings are now coming in and it's like they're zombies.

And so it's how to get them back up again from that."

After COVID-19 hit, a lot of places youth relied on for food, shelter, Wi-Fi and safety closed or scaled back services including libraries, shelters, malls and transit.
Rohan Dave says the Old Strathcona Youth Society has depleted its resources trying to fill the gap for those in need. (Supplied by Rohan Dave)

Dave said that has led to many youth staying in abusive or exploitative situations.

"What's complicated is these spaces may have kept them alive during the pandemic because they had somewhere to go," Dave said. "But the thing is, we're not doing our jobs as organizations if we cannot meet the needs of the youth."

Last year OSYS supported roughly 700 Edmontonians up to age of 24 but then came COVID-19.

Broadening its scope, the Youth Society began helping anyone in need of food, hygiene or harm reduction supplies and housing supports — or a place to just check in 

Under the restrictions of pandemic guidelines, frontline workers even delivered services on park benches.

Donations needed

The OSYS is accepting donations of winter clothing as well as monetary donations and Netflix cards to keep youth safely occupied once they are housed. They're also looking for phones, chargers and SIM cards to stay connected to youth couch surfing or sleeping in the river valley.

Wyness said all the community support CHEW sees means a lot with neighbours and police dropping off everything from homemade cookies to drugstore and Costco supplies and gift cards.

A much-needed provincial grant is still up in the air, he added.

As the cold weather sets in, Wyness said youth are in need of winter jackets, socks and footwear as well personal hygiene supplies. CHEW is also looking for monetary donations, bus passes and snacks such as pop, chips and chocolate bars.