Drop-in program offers meth-addicted youth a chance to get clean

A new, culturally based program spearheaded by youth aims to help young people get off meth before it’s too late.

Users find non-judgmental help at once-notorious Selkirk Avenue Merchants Hotel

Melissa Ross, described by those who knew her as a funny, bubbly person who helped out others, died by suicide while battling a meth addiction last year. (Melissa Ross/Facebook)

When Melissa Ross was pregnant, the mother of four knew she needed to get help. Addicted to meth, she was trying to turn things around and worried her baby would be apprehended once born.

Ross, 26, never got the help she needed and took her own life while pregnant last year. In her memory, her best friend has spearheaded a new, culturally based program that's trying to help youth get off of meth before it's too late.

"We should have been there for her. The community should have been there for her," said Jenna Wirch, who grew up on the streets with Ross and spent time in the Child and Family Services system together.

Wirch, the youth engagement co-ordinator for Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, has started a new drop-in at the once notorious Selkirk Avenue Merchants Hotel where, on Saturday evenings, everyone in the community, including people high on meth, is welcome to come to have a cup of coffee and learn about the options.

We should have been there for her. The community should have been there for her.- Jenna Wirch on the loss of her friend, Melissa Ross
Jenna Wirch, youth engagement co-ordinator for Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, says the organization is desperate for funding. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The idea is that meth users will come as they're coming down off a high and be inspired by peers to get clean in a culturally safe environment without judgment.

The program is based on four pillars — sovereignty, reclamation, cultural safety and self-determination  — and Wirch hopes once clean, participants will help mentor in the program, creating a domino effect.

"People have been waiting for this ever since the Merchants Corner — since the Merchants vendor has closed. They want something positive, they want healing, they want hope," Wirch said.

Angela Ross-Cameron says her meth-addicted sister wanted to get help but couldn't find it in Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Angela Ross-Cameron says the program would have meant a lot to her sister, whom she remembered as being outgoing with a great sense of humour.

"She was out-reaching for help and she couldn't really find it that easily," Ross-Cameron recalled. "It was difficult to see her going through that."

Wirch has big dreams for the program, which includes hiring three peer-support workers.

Program lacks funding

She also hopes to get a telephone line set up for meth users to call during the short window they have to get help before wanting to get high again.

That's something AYO hasn't been able to accomplish yet due to a funding shortage, Wirch says, adding youth have had to run the drop-in on their own.

"We don't have much money ourselves because we do come from the 'hood, we do come from the village, we do come from poverty."

'We have to get together to fight this'

Meth use in Winnipeg continues to reach new heights — statistics released Monday show a 890 per cent spike in meth possession charges since 2012.

Winnipeg police Const. Jay Murray says it's going to take the community's involvement to tackle meth addiction in the city. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Police say the drug, which is believed to be coming from cartels in Mexico, is fuelling crime and putting a huge strain on city resources in every corner of Winnipeg.

On Tuesday, Const. Jay Murray announced police had seized 22 grams of the drug and charged two men with gang ties. The arrests may make a small dent in the drug trade and don't help solve the larger problem, he says.

"I can sit up here until I'm blue in the face and talk about arrests, taking drugs off the street, ​[but] it's going to require more commitment I think from the community​," Murray said. " ​W​e have to get together and fight this."

Drop-in program offers meth-addicted youth a chance to get clean. 1:51

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin has had an itch for news since he was young. He landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country. He studied human rights in university and holds both a degree and diploma in communications.​ Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca