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Territory unveils plans for new detox centre

The Yukon government has announced details about its plans to build a new detox and inpatient drug and alcohol treatment centre in downtown Whitehorse. The $21 million building is expected to open by July 2016.

The Yukon government has announced details about its plans to build a new detox and inpatient drug and alcohol treatment centre in downtown Whitehorse.

The $21 million building is expected to open by July 2016. It will replace the aging Sarah Steele Building on Sixth Avenue.

The new place, to be built on the same property, will be bigger. Currently Sarah Steele is about 1,200 square metres, while the new facility will be more than double that, at about 2,800 square metres.

Inpatient beds for the 24-day adult inpatient treatment program will double from 10 to 20.

Having twice as many beds means inpatient programs for men and women will run at the same time in separate units.

Right now, the two programs alternate. As a result, clients could sometimes face a wait of several weeks before the next program begins. That’s far from ideal someone who has come out of detox and is seeking help to straighten out.

The new building will offer continuous intake, meaning people can start whenever they are ready.

“We will have the ability to transition people into the treatment program (from detox),” Health Minister Mike Nixon said on Thursday.

For now, there are no plans to expand the inpatient program beyond 24-days, Nixon said, but in some cases it could be made slightly longer if necessary, he said.

The detox will have 18 beds, up from the current 10.

“We recognize that we need a better space for both men, women and youth,” Nixon said.

Right now, youth in detox stay in a separate bedroom in the main Sarah Steele building.

The new building will have a completely separate area with four beds for youth 13 to 19, where they won’t cross over to the adult population, he said.

“We’re seeing a number of youth that are faced with the challenge of drug and alcohol addiction as well as mental health issues,” Nixon said, adding that he’s familiar with the problem from his time as justice minister.

After that the youth will be able to transfer to one of four assessment beds, health spokesperson Pat Living said.

There staff will be able to work with the youth and their families to assess what their needs are.

That could mean going home and returning for daily counselling, or connecting them with other community services.

It might even mean staying for a short time and completing some modules of the adult in-treatment program.

In rare cases, youth could be sent Outside for treatment, Living said.

When it comes to having a full in-patient treatment option for youth in the Yukon, Living said there hasn’t been a huge number of requests for those services.

“We’ll look at things going forward. We’re not shutting any doors,” she said.

Vicki Durrant is very familiar with drug and alcohol issues among youth. The executive director of the Youth of Today Society says that 90 per cent of the youth her group sees at their drop-in centre have some form of drug or alcohol problem.

“They don’t just start drinking when they’re 19 or 18. If the statistics are high for adults, they’re starting at 10, 11, 12,” she said.

And alcohol statistics are high in the Yukon. Statistics Canada tracks the sales of beer, wine and spirits across the country.

Yukon has led the nation by a wide margin ever since the statistic started to be kept back in 1950.

Youth are not the easiest group to encourage to get help, Durrant said. “That’s just the nature of being a teenager.”

The Youth of Today centre is aimed at high-risk youth from 15 to 24.

She estimates that three of the clients she sees on a regular basis were saved this winter when RCMP picked them up and brought them to the “drunk tank,” also known as the arrest processing unit.

“They were intoxicated and they weren’t able to think straight,” she said. “They don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s cold out here.’ We’re fortunate that no youth this year froze.”

She said she wanted to give the minister a “pat on the back” for the work that is being done, but was most concerned about what programming was going to look like.

“They need to put as much time and effort into designing the program as they are in designing the building,” she said.

Treatment plans need to be long-term, she said. That’s how you deal with the underlying issues.

“That could be huge. That’s a lot. There’s abuse, there’s trauma, there’s lots of stuff that has happened to kids and so it has to be long-term.”

Whatever’s created has to be holistic, youth friendly and feel less like an institution, she said.

Nixon said he doesn’t have a lot of details about what the programming will look like at this point.

All that will be worked on over the next year, during construction, he said.

Right now, between 600 and 700 people use detox at the Sarah Steele building every year.

On top of that the counselling program at Sarah Steele works with around 250 clients a year. The youth program works with about 130 youth annually.

NDP MLA Kate White said while she’s glad the new building is being worked on, it’s important that the government not forget about the needs of the communities outside Whitehorse.

“We do have communities in the territory and those communities are sorely lacking in these services.”

During a recent tour of the communities, White said she met a man who went through the detox program and was doing well before he came home and fell off the wagon.

He had to hitchhike back to Whitehorse to try again.

“I think the bigger communities like Watson Lake and Dawson City would definitely merit their own smaller programming, honestly,” she said.

“The old hospital hasn’t been torn down, it’s still standing - could that get renovated and turned into a detox centre with the co-operation of the First Nation?”

Nixon said he’s aware that these problems are also dealt with in the communities.

“Right now what we are focusing on is the new facility here in Whitehorse,” he said.

“As far as community outreach, that may be a portion of new programming that’s involved within the Sarah Steele building but that hasn’t been confirmed yet.”

As for the current building, programming will continue as usual while the new one is being built.

Once the new one is up and running, the old building will be torn down to make room for a parking lot and green space, Nixon said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at