A Kelowna teen’s recent overdose death is opening eyes about youth drug use and prompting change in the local harm reduction network.
“We all loved Chelsea (Christianson),” said Angie Lohr, the face of HOPE Outreach, an organization whose volunteers hit Kelowna streets nightly, handing out care packages and harm reduction kits to the street-entrenched population.
Through that work she and her volunteers got to know the 17-year-old who fatally overdosed March 19, taking what she believed to be heroin. She was bright, friendly and clearly in need of some help.
“When we heard she died … it was really hard on all of us,” Lohr said. “She was such an amazing girl.”
Lohr, who battled her own addiction issues and recently lost her daughter to a fentanyl overdose in the Lower Mainland, said it’s a tragic turn of events that will only be repeated unless something changes — change she intends to contribute to.
“There are so many kids in this on the streets… if they can’t find a place to go they’re not going to get better,” she said. “We’re going to lose a whole generation.”
Youth drug use
Although there are four youth detox beds set to open in Kelowna in the next month, drug use in that demographic does not get much notice in the ongoing conversations about the fentanyl crisis.
In part, it’s because the numbers don’t support it.
Recent statistics from the BC Ministry of Health show that four out of five overdose deaths were men and more than half were between the ages of 30 and 49.
It’s also an uncomfortable topic.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about the idea of a 14-year-old injecting themselves with drugs, but they do,” said Interior Health’s Dr. Trevor Corneil, Tuesday.
“That is a big first step for the public; acknowledging that the situation occurs. Once you recognize that gap exists of how to respond to that issue, you can start to work on providing services to address it.”
Dealing with children addicted to drugs, he explained, can also be a struggle because there are so many organizations to navigate.
“One of the difficulties, although it can be thought of as both a positive and negative, is that there are three different government ministries—education, health and families—dealing with this issue on respective levels, so they all have to come together in creating integrated solutions to help fill those gaps that exist,” Corneil said.
Lohr doesn’t see the positive side of this bureaucracy so she’s forging ahead with another plan that’s focused specifically on adult women, but could also help teens in need of finding a safe place before getting off drugs.
House of Hope
“You know what, when Chelsea died I decided then, I’m on a mission. I’m not going to see one more woman die on the streets,” Lohr said.
This weekend Lohr re-opened House of Hope, a low-barrier safe house for women. She has five beds available on a month-by-month basis for women in need. Five more beds are expected to open by next month.
“I’ll even take teenagers if it’s needed,” Lohr said, adding that she would require consent from parents to do so.
“There are just so many obstacles that prevent women from moving forward and I had to do something. I see so many women suffering I had to try to make this work. ”
The safe house is where women who may want to go into treatment or who are looking to change their lives, end homelessness or abusive relationships can go.
Lohr described it as “abstinence free space with harm reduction” which means women who are using methadone, saboxone, THC pills or anything that would require a prescription are able to enter.
“Treatment facilities will not take women who are on these drugs,” she said.
“So, we work with (local resources) and the girls can get into treatment.”
As of right now, there’s a four to eight week wait time to get into addiction help, said Lohr, and that’s too long to wait unless there’s some stability.
“This gives them a roof over their head and safe place to stabilize, so changes can start happening,” she said.
“People can’t make changes in a shelter or living on the street. They’re just in survival mode. You have to house somebody to make them feel safe to make changes.”
If a woman chooses to go into treatment, which is about 30 days, they can reserve their bed so they have some place to call home once they’ve completed their program.
She will also work with women who have been incarcerated, so they can learn how to function within the boundaries of society.
HOPE Outreach has only been open a week, and Lohr has yet to fully figure out funding. To contact Lohr go to www.hope-outreach.com.
Family and friends of Chelsea Christianson are also making an effort to raise awareness on the issues of youth mental health and addictions and increase the services available.
“Our goal is to donate the money from Chelsea’s story, to the youth shelter at The Boys and Girls Clubs of Kelowna – a place where Chelsea often found comfort, support, and friendship, as well as The Maple Springs Bible Camp where she received support and unconditional love over the years,” reads a GoFundMe account titled In Memory Of An Angel.
“On April 22 Chelsea would have turned 18 – we will close the page on this day at 6 p.m.”