'Youth detox saves lives': Rally held to protest Vancouver program closure

A group gathered in east Vancouver Sunday to rally against a youth detox being shut down.

After 30 years, Directions Youth Detox was slated for closure June 3. However, organizers of the protest say that date was moved up. The website for the program was no longer live Sunday.

"Youth detox saves lives. I know tons of people that would not be alive without youth detox right now. Tons of people that would not have housing, tons of people that would not have kids and have a great life," said Rainbow Dykeman, who was among those gathered at Commercial Drive and Broadway.

"It is community, it is a safe space. A lot of these youth have actually zero safe relationships with any kind of adults, any kind of other health services."

The program was what was called a "social detox." It’s was geared toward those who do not need 24-hour medical supervision. It was deliberately designed to be low-barrier and non-judgmental and is part of a range of services and programs offered by the organization.

Dykeman describes it as a place that helps vulnerable youth who use drugs "stay alive until we can figure it out."

Although nurse practitioners visit the site, and a clinical counsellor with expertise in mental health and substance use is also available -- the non-medical supports like the relationships that are built with staff and other youth, access to laundry facilities, home-cooked comfort food, and a safe place to sleep are what advocates have said made a real difference.

"You're in a fragile position, you've already been through so much on the streets usually and through so much trauma you want to be the people your age who get it" Dykeman said, adding being around adults is something that can discourage younger people from seeking services.

A petition opposing the closure has gathered more than 7,500 signatures. Concern over what will replace this long-standing and trusted community service is one of the key issues raised.

"Vancouver Coastal Health has stated that a more comprehensive plan will be put into place, yet there has been no explanation of what this will look like," the petition reads.

In a statement last month, Vancouver Coastal Health said Directions' social detox model "doesn’t align with current guidelines and best practices around opioid use disorder from the Ministry of Health and the BC Centre on Substance Use."

As for what other services will replace it, the health authority said they will be creating a new Downtown Eastside youth outreach team, and a new two-bed site for youth detox, and expanding access to home-based services. For youth that are unhoused, Vancouver Coastal Health says it will "work to secure a caregiver support home space."

A date for when these services will be up and running was not provided.

The closure comes as B.C. continues to see record numbers of deaths from toxic drugs, with 2,236 lives lost in 2021. According to the BC Coroners Service, 30 of those deaths were among those under the age of 19, and 325 were among those between 19 and 29 years old – the highest numbers ever recorded for those age groups.

Dykeman and others who gathered said now is not the time to be closing any service for youth, for any reason.

"We're trying to change our life now, we're trying to live our life now -- we don't want to die."