Vancouver’s only social detox program for youth is closing

Vancouver Coastal Health decides to switch its social detox model to home-based

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Rainbow Dykeman, a protest organizer, is standing behind a large yellow sign that reads “bring back youth detox.”
VCH accelerated the program’s closure from June 3 to May 21 due to staff shortages. PHOTO: Devin Avery / Unsplash

By: Isabella Urbani, Staff Writer

On May 21, the Directions Youth Services (DYS) social detox program came to an end. DYS aimed to support youth dealing with homelessness as a result of substance abuse. Their detox program offered a safe space for youth under the age of 21 to stay while coming off drugs. They also offered drop-ins and safehouses, among other services. 

In 2020 alone, DYS had over 21,000 visits to their centre. But back in December, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) informed the organization they had decided to pull their funding. The Peak reached out to Emily Luba, Rainbow Dykeman, Katey Kincaid, and Kali-Olt Sedgemore, who helped plan a rally on May 22, to protest VCH’s decision after Becca Norris began the petition

“The youth are going to die without it,” said Dykeman, a harm reduction activist. “I think it’s a huge joke that VCH is not giving real answers about anything.” 

Sedgemore referred to the program as one of a kind. “This is the only service that really incorporates building connections and relationships that allows a break from street life if you don’t have a stable home,” they explained. 

Social detoxing is where detoxing occurs in a structured community based environment. Support services such as therapy and aftercare are offered. Home-based detoxing occurs in unsupervised settings where the individual detoxes alone. It is considered to be more dangerous because the chance of relapse is increased when unsupervised. Medical detox occurs under supervision of licensed medical professionals. They can administer medication to manage withdrawal symptoms and monitor the health of the individual.

The Peak reached out to VCH to find more about  the program’s closure. According to VCH, the current social detox model, which houses youth while they withdraw from drugs, is no longer the best option. “The landscape of substance use care has changed,” explained VCH. “For some clients, social detox as a stand-alone treatment can cause greater harm and put them at risk of overdose and being discharged.” VCH did not expand on why this is.

Dykeman, who spent some time at DYS’ drop-in centre, believed this couldn’t be farther from the truth. “I was one of those youth who fell through the crack of every system ever,” Dykeman shared. “It’s one of the only places youth have to be like ‘I need help, everything else has failed, what do I do now?’”

Luba said although VCH is abandoning the social detox model, they didn’t initially provide DYS with the adequate funding to host a medical detox. She said medical detoxing is “essential for people detoxing from specific substances which can cause death during withdrawal, such as benzodiazepines,” but don’t “delegitimize” a social detox. 

“It doesn’t make sense to close the social [detox centre] just because it isn’t meeting the needs of all youth,” explained Luba. She added during her time working at DYS, youth prefered to detox there instead of at other centres with older users which they found to be more “alienating.” 

Kincaid added the benefit of social detoxing is feeling more at home and less like you’re in a hospital. At DYS, each person has their own room, television, and access to a stocked fridge. Dykeman referred to the service as a map guiding youth in the right direction, hence its name. “Sometimes just knowing that you’re not alone is the only thing that keeps people alive,” said Dykeman. They were able to remain sober while living on the streets for two years with the help of DYS.

Instead, due to a “significant community engagement” research project, VCH has transitioned to a home-based detox method, ensuring youth without homes will have priority for VCH’s detox sites. This effort includes a new outreach team specifically designated to the Downtown Eastside. 

Kincaid believed the more outreach the better, but not at the expense of the entire social detox program. “We need more services but it is not a replacement for a social detox like Directions.” She added youth in family homes or foster care would be less likely to be allowed to do a detox at home. 

VCH moved the program’s closure from June 3 to May 21 due to staff shortages. VCH expressed that despite the earlier closure, they do not anticipate any gaps between the start of their new program and the ceasure of their old one. Luba doesn’t think this is attainable. “There will be a gap much longer than two weeks in services as it takes months if not years for youth to become familiar — let alone trust new services and service-providers,” she explained. 

Dykeman, on the other hand, thought the rescheduling had more to do with the rally held on May 22. A lot of people were unaware of the program’s closure, said Dykeman. They think this is because media coverage has been minimal.

Today, Becca Norris’ petition against the closure has nearly 8,000 signatures online. A template script for people to send off to VCH representatives has been used over 200 times, said Luba.

There is still much to be done about BC’s ongoing opioid and drug crisis. Kincaid believes there should be at least two youth detoxes in Vancouver, one medical and one social, to cater to the needs of different people. She urged people to hold the government accountable instead of blaming people suffering from substance abuse. 

“We have moms and dads and sisters and brothers. Sometimes, we even have children. We feel pain and sadness and grief just like everyone else,” she said.

Luba wanted VCH to retract the program’s closure, allocate more money to pay for nurses, and give patients the opportunity to choose between a medical or social detox. She also calls upon the VCH to start listening to the voices of youth who “are in charge of their own healing” instead of dictating the decision themselves.

Dykeman believes the VCH and the government shouldn’t “make decisions about services for people without talking to the people who use those services.” They added if VCH “had spent [time] talking to ten youth about this, they would have understood this is not something to let go.” 

You can find the petition and open letter here, as well as Sedgemore’s co-authored calls to action about harm reduction.