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Saving lives focus of new Downtown Eastside youth outreach centre

Launch will focus on helping vulnerable youth on the streets of Vancouver
Youth struggling with mental health or addiction will have access to a new outreach centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, providing what the government says will be life-saving support. A tarp is seen draped between a building and a shopping cart to provide shade from the sun in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, May 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Youth struggling with mental health or addiction will have access to a new outreach centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, providing what the government says will be life-saving support.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside told reporters Friday that staff initially began reaching out to youth last November, but the centre at 786 Powell Street has now been officially launched.

The ministry said in a statement that team members meet vulnerable youth on the streets of Vancouver, build rapport, and connect them to services, as well as distribute harm-reduction supplies and necessities such as sleeping bags and food.

“We’re investing in interventions like this to try to reach out to kids and provide those really important connections to health care, to housing, to all of those stabilizers in their life that are a critical part of intervening in a path of an addiction problem that is growing,” Whiteside said.

“This team has had really terrific success so far. They’ve had 35 youth since last November, and are continuing to provide services to those youth and are going to be doing great things from here.”

The centre is being operated by the Vancouver Coastal Health authority. The outreach team has been expanded from two workers to eight, with members including mental health and substance-use nurses, youth workers, an Indigenous advocate and social workers to “provide wraparound services to youth,” Whiteside added.

The ministry said about 75 per cent of serious mental health issues emerge before the age of 25, making it crucial for young people to have access to support.

“(The) rise in youth homelessness in this area was very observable and was a real red flag for Vancouver Coastal (Health) to say we need to step up and do something about it and to intervene,” Whiteside said. “The observation that they are getting younger is what really struck me.”

Emily Giguere, VCH clinical planner for Youth Substance Use Services, said that while the team is focused on youth aged 15 to 24, workers have noticed a recent uptick in those as young as 12 or 13.

“That’s the population that has increased significantly in the past few years actually,” she told the news conference.

Whiteside said outreach workers form a relationship with youth, encouraging those who need services “to feel some trust and to feel safe and secure in accessing those services.”

“That is a really key piece. It always starts with food, it starts with dignity, it starts with a relationship.”

Giguere said meeting this population in the community is “fundamental” to their work.

“They are sometimes difficult to find. They may not have a fixed address or phone number and they are often distrustful of the health-care system,” she said.

“We start by going to them and seeing what we can do to help you in your environment where you’re comfortable first, and then at some point, maybe you’ll come here where you can actually access other services as well.”

Whiteside said about 80 per cent of youth being helped through the outreach team are Indigenous, so Indigenous peer workers are on staff. The new office is also decorated with murals by three Coast Salish artists, creating what the ministry calls a “culturally safe space.”

Though the youth centre is the “first of its kind” in B.C., Whiteside said other health authorities are planning on “scaling up programs like this.”

“Certainly, the work that’s done here and the sort of protocols, the way in which this service is working, is information that will be shared across the health authority so that we can better identify those needs and see where there are gaps that need to be filled,” the minister said.

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