Bad timing for funding cuts to Indigenous health services

Local service providers say cuts came at the worst time


Reported by Becca Clarkson

A cut in funding for health services for Indigenous people in the Downtown Eastside couldn’t come at a worse time, given the state of the opioid crisis, say local service providers.

In an attempt to prevent that, Lou Demerais of Vancouver Native Health Society organized a community meeting at the nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona Branch last week. Demerais brought together different agencies to brainstorm ways to keep providing essential services for Indigenous people — be they youth, people living with HIV or those struggling with addiction — amidst contracts and funding they say is being lost this year.

Community action needed

“If nothing happens as a result of people getting together to organize services such as the ones we provide, these things will soon be things of the past,” Demerais said after the meeting. “They’ll be token services offered through the health authority that won’t get the job done.”

The Positive Outlook Program, of which Demerais is the executive director, is the only Indigenous-run HIV-treatment centre and has received $1.1 million every year from the health authority, which is 16 per cent of the program’s annual revenue. The health authority also gave $2.6 million to the Vancouver Native Health Society last year.

Watari Counselling and Support Services Society, a non-profit that’s provided services for at-risk youth, adults and communities since 1986, received 50 per cent of its funding from Vancouver Coastal Health last year — a total of $1.3 million.

But a cut in funding for Watari’s Youth Day Treatment Program, which before closing at the end of this month will have been running for 20 years, has widened the gap in services for youth struggling with addictions in East Vancouver.

Decisions were made abruptly

Youth counsellor Gabriella Anderson said the cut in funding was abrupt and reminiscent of last year’s funding cut to Watari’s trans sex-worker support group.

According to her, the health authority has hopes to have a new program running by May. The current youth substance use and prevention services team is in the process of a literature review to learn more about treatment options.

But Anderson wonders whether that is really needed.

“Youth struggling with addictions do not need academic research to heal,” Anderson said, who noted that a majority of the program’s clientele comes from the Indigenous community. “They simply need humans who love and accept them as they are to show up in a consistent way.”

Youth program continues

According to health authority spokesperson Carrie Stefanson, the youth program is not ending, but is simply being redesigned and supplied by another provider in response to feedback from youth clients and families.

“We found that a contract with our current provider for a day program serving youth facing multiple challenges such as mental health, addictions and trauma needed to be redesigned to better serve clients’ needs,” Stefanson wrote in an email.

In response to specific questions surrounding contracts with both Watari and VNHS, Stefanson would only comment that Vancouver Native Health Society is an important partner that VCH communicates with often, and that Watari is a contracted provider and receives funding based on the contracts it has with VCH.

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