You may be surprised to learn there’s only one youth shelter between Victoria and Nanaimo.
“We see kids for a variety of reasons,” explains Kiwanis Emergency Youth Shelter (KEYS) manager Thea Pichurski. “We see them from a breakdown in the family home or a foster placement. We see kids who are using substances or experiencing homelessness.”
The Kiwanis Emergency Youth Shelter can house up to 10 kids at a time, and the housing shortage and the opioid crisis are making it more challenging than ever for those on the front lines.
“We do lots of longer stays than we used to,” Pichurski says. “We see a lot of kids using substances that they didn’t use five years ago. We have 14-year-olds using fentanyl when 10 years ago, most of the kids were just smoking pot.”
Instead of staying two or three days, some teens are now living at the shelter for months at a time because there’s nowhere else to go.
“It’s unfortunate because no 16-year-old should be living in a shelter, but there’s nowhere for them to go,” Pichurski says.
The shelter is one of the many services offered by the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society.
“The Victoria Youth Empowerment Society has been in operation for more than 30 years now, and our goal is to really offer youth safe, supported services that really help them meet their goals,” says Victoria Youth Empowerment Society Executive Director Julie-Ann Hunter.
The non-profit has a youth drop-in centre for basic needs like laundry, showers and meals, it runs a specialized youth detox program and offers counselling for teens and families.
“We’ve definitely seen a higher demand since COVID,” Hunter explains. “We’ve seen a lot of youth that are requiring extra services around social isolation and anxiety.”
“There’s not enough mental health support, there’s not enough substance use supports, and the drugs are so toxic that people try things for the very first time and they don’t survive,” Pichurski adds.
For Pichurski, who’s helped a lot of teens in the 15 years she’s worked for the society, it’s difficult to see so many people struggling.
“It’s hard,” she says, getting emotional. “It’s heartbreaking every day. You kind of do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
But despite tough days, it’s clear they’re making a difference.
“Being able to have services that say, ‘we see you, we hear you, and we’re going to try and meet your needs,’ I think, is really important for them,” Hunter says. “They really need to know that adults are there and looking out for them.”
“That might just be support for 12 hours, or it might be three months, and maybe they come back when they’re 20 years old or 30 years old and say this place saved my life,” Pichurski adds. “And I believe we do that. I believe we save lives.”