Some of B.C.’s most-vulnerable youth on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have a newly renovated space that’s tailored to serve their needs.
The Vancouver Integrated Youth Services Centre brings together key supports under one roof – including child and youth mental health, addiction services, child protection and police. Together, they provide a stronger safety net for high-risk youth.
Located at 550 Cambie St., government and community partners celebrated the site’s renovations and official grand opening on May 3, 2018.
The renovated centre is a safe haven for the more than 100 high-risk youth, aged 13 to 19 years. Whether they’ve come from nearby, or arrived from elsewhere, they now live in Vancouver’s most-scrutinized neighbourhood.
Open seven days a week with hours extending past midnight, the site’s expanded accessibility and co-located youth teams are intended to better serve the needs of youth who are referred to as “high risk.” They may be homeless, involved in intravenous drug use and/or prostitution.
Murals painted by the Urban Native Youth Association's young artists give the space its youth-friendly feel. The youth also built a medicine table that stores traditional Indigenous medicines (sage, sweet grass, tobacco) that can be used in Indigenous cultural practices, such as when Elders conduct healing ceremonies.
One of the ministry’s longest-serving youth workers, Khoa Nguyen says, “For a youth to be on the DTES, or have connections to the DTES, many parts of their young lives have been broken.”
As a former government-sponsored refugee, visible minority and gay man, Nguyen relies on his own background and his deep compassion - a quality he considers part of his family’s genetic code - to connect with the youth on the DTES.
“When I work with youth, I ask myself, ‘How can I give some peace to this person in the moment?’ Long term, I’m working to help them plan for adulthood. I want them to know that it’s in their power to take control of their future,” Nguyen says. “The hard part of the job involves helping them get stable housing and build healthier relationships.
“These youth are the most sensitive, and also the most forgiving. They understand mistakes. They may feel really bad about what they’re doing in the sex trade, and using. They’re not accepted for who they are. Some have developmental delays, which place them at risk. Our job is to assess risk, get mental health and other assessments, and build their resiliency. You can’t expect youth to seek us out. You have to seek them out, find a way to make a connection, and most importantly, build a relationship.
“So much has changed in the time since I began working down here. Because of the internet, everything has gone inside. Youth are being sexually exploited through social media sites. The drugs are much more powerful and deadly.”
Referring to the renovated space, he said the murals are also a reminder that culture is a part of the healing process. This is particularly important for Indigenous youth, who are disproportionately represented in government care.
Nguyen, who has been a youth worker for the ministry for 16 years, knows what it’s like to be an outsider and to experience chaos at a young age. In 1979, when his father fled war-ravaged Vietnam with him, his older brother and younger sister, they were sent to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp in Malaysia for three months. Later, the family moved to Vancouver where Nguyen went on to graduate from the University of British Columbia, with a bachelor of social work degree, at the age of 22.
His memories from Vietnam and at the refugee camp might be the reason he is able to connect so well with his young clients on the DTES, where his path and theirs have crossed in the most unlikely of places.