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New Sarah Steele building offers more space, ‘multiple approaches’

Whitehorse’s new drug treatment facility and detox centre is more than twice as big as its predecessor and will offer a new youth residential treatment program.

Whitehorse’s new drug treatment facility and detox centre is more than twice as big as its predecessor and will offer a new youth residential treatment program.

On Friday, politicians unveiled the new Sarah Steele Alcohol and Drug Services building in downtown Whitehorse just behind the current facilities.

The $18-million, three-storey building is 35,000 square feet and, with the detox and residential treatment programs combined, has the capacity for 50 clients. The old facility had only 20 beds.

There are two youth wings in the new facility, each with four beds meant for youth from 14 to 18 years old. One will offer medically supervised detox and the other will house a four- to five-week residential treatment program.

Youth residential treatment was not part of the original design of the building.

“Part of the plan was, in fact, to have a sobering centre and that was taken out because of the (plans to build the) new Salvation Army building,” said Michael Hanson, the health department’s manager of alcohol and drug services.

The new youth program, slated to start in November, will be run out of the space originally planned for the sobering centre.

The department will alternate between sessions for boys and for girls.

“We are just seeing more and more youth involved in our service,” Hanson said. “We have sent some outside the territory and then the government made a decision that they would try to put together a program for Yukon in the territory.”

Hanson said he doesn’t know how many youth will be referred to the new program. The department already offers youth counselling on an outpatient basis and has counsellors who attend local schools.

The biggest change is located on the new building’s second floor. That’s where all of the people in the adult residential program will stay.

In the old facility, the residential programs lasted 24 days and alternated between programs for men and programs for women. There were enough beds for a maximum of 10 people at a time.

The department could only run nine programs a year, Hanson said. Because the programs alternated, people looking for help could end up waiting months to get into the program they needed.

“They could relapse and then we never see them again,” he said. “It’s not a very good approach, it’s not a very evidence-based approach.”

In the new facility, residential treatment programs for men and women will run at the same time. They each will have 14 beds and people can stay between 30 and 90 days.

Adult residential programs officially start Oct.12.

While a spot in the residential treatment programs requires a referral from a doctor or counsellor, anyone can walk off the street and into either the youth or adult detox programs, Hanson said.

Nurses on staff will be able to supervise people as their bodies withdraw from drugs and alcohol.

“Usually alcohol withdrawal is seven to 10 days. It depends what they’re withdrawing from,” Hanson said.

“So if it’s opiates it could be a bit longer. If they’re doing a methadone tapering that could be a month.”

The new detox centre opens Oct. 3. The old facility will remain up and running this week.

The old Sarah Steele building was constructed some time in the ’40s. It has served as a residence for nurses and teachers before it was taken over by the health department.

Its age and small size limited the kinds of programs the department could offer. There was only one room for any kind of group session, Hanson said.

Along with office space for the department’s 14 counsellors who will continue to offer regular outpatient counselling, the third floor of the new building has an art room and fitness equipment.

“So now we have the opportunity to do multiple therapeutic approaches.”

The health department has said that the old Sarah Steele building will be knocked down to make room for a parking lot and green space.

Contact Ashley Joannou at