As we near the end of the first month of 2024, a conversation that has been circulating across all platforms centred around the cold spell and snowstorm that Vancouver experienced.
At CHV, the conversation during that period focused on supporting as many youth as possible, during such extreme weather conditions. At the heart of CHV’s efforts was CHV’s Community Support Services (CSS).
At the helm of CSS is Jon Spiller, Manager of Complex Support Services. Jon hails from England with a background that includes being a social worker, child protection social worker, fostering social worker, adolescent social worker, and a drug and alcohol social worker. Throughout his 16 years in this line of work, Jon has essentially always worked with youth. Jon has been at CHV for eight years now, where he’s held roles as an overnight weekend team leader, weekday team leader, Manager of the male Crisis Program, Manager of ROP, social worker, and now Manager of CSS.
What is CSS and how does it support youth? To give us a better understanding of these services and the amazing team that support youth, Jon Spiller sat down and explained how these services help vulnerable youth in the community.
What is CSS?
There are two main components of CSS: Outreach and the Drop-In Centre. Outreach and the Drop-In Centre are low-barrier entry point to CHV and are often the first point of contact between a youth and CHV staff.
What does low barrier mean? Jon explains: “Low barrier basically means just removing any obstacle or barrier that’s stopping a youth from accessing our services. So for CSS, to come into the CSS Drop-In or have access to CSS, the requirements are really minimal. So basically, you just need to be within our age range of 16 to 24. We have no expectations on the youth.” Youth accessing CSS do not need to be working or going to school. Youth may have mental health or substance use challenges; all are welcome, which is why CSS is a low-barrier service.
Harm reduction is also an important element of these services. And why is it so important? “Because these are some of the most vulnerable youth out there and there are very few youth specific drop-ins in Vancouver. So, it’s important that we do what we do and that youth have a space to come and just feel safe.” Outreach teams go out into the community and meet youth where they are at. They support youth by connecting them to services, they also offer them food and harm reduction supplies.
“The biggest thing about it [Outreach] is just showing up and meeting the youth and building relationships, because many of the youth have had negative experiences. They’ve accessing support in the past. So, it’s about us breaking down those barriers and regaining trust. The Outreach workers spend a great deal of time with the youth building up relationships with the hope that we can then encourage them to come to the CHV or look for housing supports.”
Some of the challenges and obstacles that unhoused youth face are:
- Finding somewhere safe to stay
- Getting access to services
- Simply staying alive during harsh weather conditions
- Being targeted for exploitation
- Isolation — limited support networks
- Stigma in the community towards homeless individuals
- Access mental health services (they require referrals, assessments, etc.)
- Toxic drug supply
Speaking on the toxic drug supply, Jon said, “That’s a massive challenge. The BC coroner service reported that nearly 2,300 people lost their lives to toxic drugs in 2022. That’s roughly the same number of people who died from COVID, and think about how many resources got put into COVID.”
“Stigma about it [around drug use] is stopping people from have those conversations about how we can best support youth. You know, there’s a lack of youth-specific overdose prevention sites. It means that youth aren’t go into these overdose prevention sites because the ones that they have to go to are for adults. And there’s a big difference between a 19 or 20 year old going to a service that’s designed specifically for youth in comparison to going to one where you’re sat next to someone who’s 50 or 60 years old, who’s had a generation of going to this service.”
Why is harm reduction a focus of CSS? “It’s really important because working with a harm reduction approach allows us to build up relationships with youth who often haven’t had the most healthy relationships in their life. And harm reduction is actually an attachment-based intervention, which is why it works excellently with youth.”
The Drop-In Centre is open seven days a week and is a place where youth can come, hang out, do laundry, shower, have a hot meal, and for some, it’s a place to sleep. Why? Because night time on the street is dangerous and youth need to stay awake to stay safe. Lack of sleep and nutrition take a huge toll on one’s physical and mental health.
“When I first started, we were seeing, on average, 40 youth a day, and now we’re seeing 60, 70, 80 youth on a regular basis.”
CSS is part of the continuum of care at CHV. Often as a first point of contact, youth have their basic needs met and receive support to other services needed. Youth can then transition into our Crisis Program to work on their trauma, while learning or enhancing their skills and then they can enter our Rights of Passage program, which is a transitional housing program that readies youth for living independently.
Why does Jon show up to work every day?
“Well, I just feel really lucky to be working at CSS. I love low barrier; I love harm reduction. But the best thing about CSS, really, is the youth and the staff. The youth are incredible characters and it’s just really nice to be a part of their journey in life, however big or however small that is. And they, they’re just some of the most incredible, non-judgmental souls to other youth that are in the space as well. It’s a real honour to work with such an amazing team and it’s just a real privilege to be able to spend my time with the incredible youth who come to Covenant House.”
How can someone help support youth?
“That’s a really good question. I would say, challenge stigma. When you hear it, when you see it, challenge it. Advocate for more affordable housing. BC says that we needed overdose provincial sites — hold them accountable!”
“Covenant House is a fantastic organization, but we couldn’t do any of this without the donations. None of this would be around if we didn’t have the incredible people who donate. It really makes a difference to a lot of people’s lives. And even if sometimes we don’t see that right in the moment, long term, it makes a huge difference. If the donors keep doing what they’re doing, then, we give our word that we will keep doing what we do. We’ll keep pushing, we’ll keep trying to do best practice. We’ll keep driving what it looks like to work with young people and try and be the lead and push forward legislation, push forward, everything. This is how we work with young people to best support them. We work as a team.”
To learn more about CSS, challenges that youth face, how we can best support them, and also a humorous anecdote about hamster advocacy, check out our latest podcast, “Community Support Services — In Conversation with CSS Manager Jon Spiller.”