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When the frozen bodies of Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner were discovered in 2000, Brian Dueck spoke on behalf of the Saskatoon Police Service. Dressed in a white uniform, his appearance on TV was our first indication that he had been promoted to Superintendent. There he was, talking about the need for a brief detox centre for cops to take people who were disturbing the public peace because they were intoxicated by alcohol or drugs.

Four years later an addition has been built onto Larson House. The opening, as shown on TV, displayed one large room with a dozen beds that fold out from the wall. Some plumbing. I could have contracted and build this thing for a tenth of what it allegedly cost. This is so far from meeting the needs of a community ravaged by poverty: drugs and alcohol, petty crime, more violent crime, and a general hopelessness pervades Saskatoon west side communities. -- Sheila Steele

Saskatoon detoxification centre

Detox centre busy in first two months

Saskatoon's brief detoxification centre took in 84 severely intoxicated people from the time it opened its doors in late November to Jan. 8.

The 12-bed unit is connected to Larson House, a long-term detox centre. The Saskatoon Health Region hopes police and paramedics will continue to bring intoxicated people to the centre, where they can stay for up to three days and have access to addictions workers, medical personnel and support staff.

"The fact that we have been there to serve 84 people is a success in itself," Jean Morrison, SHR interim CEO, said Tuesday. "That's 84 people who weren't in an inappropriate setting when they were in a condition where they couldn't care for themselves. They weren't on the street, they weren't in the emergency department and they weren't in a jail cell."

The health region never established a set goal for how many people the treatment centre should serve, just the services it would offer, said SHR spokesperson Leanne Nyrifa.

After less than two months of operation, it's still too early to tell how successful the centre is, she said. The region is still working to inform police and paramedics, emergency room staff and the public the detox centre is a safe place to send non-violent people who are excessively drunk or high.

Larson House now sends all patients seeking detox treatment through the short-term centre before admitting them for long-term detox, Morrison said in her report to the health region's board.

Morrison also said some clients receive counselling before they leave while others do not, and the region is working to decide on a consistent routine for people who use the facility.

Brief detox unit opens doors

Saskatoon's long-needed brief detoxification unit will open its doors this week, giving police and ambulance personnel a choice when picking up severely intoxicated people, aside from police cells or hospital emergency rooms.

The 12-bed unit is connected to Larson House, a longer-term social setting detox centre.

The two facilities will work closely together, and in most cases, individuals brought to the brief detox unit will be able to attend Larson House after recovering if they wish.

Provincial Industry Minister Eric Cline said the unit was important because alcohol abuse affects everyone.

"I don't think there are many of us that are not touched by alcohol abuse. I think all of us, in our families, will have people that have addiction problems . . . We need to have facilities to properly help people in our communities. It simply was inappropriate that the only places we had to take people in need of assistance were the police cells and the hospitals," Cline said to the crowd of about 50 people at the unit's opening ceremonies Saturday.

Cline, who was present last July at the sod-turning of the detox unit, said it was nice to see the facility finally become a reality.

Shan Landry, the vice-president of primary health for the Saskatoon Health Region agreed the detox unit was badly needed.

"This week the doors of this facility will open to provide a place for people to stay, for a short period of time, to rest, and to recover from serious intoxications or drug episodes. This unit is an alternative to overnight incarceration or visits to emergency rooms."

The brief detox unit is made to give people a place to stay for anywhere from a few hours to three days. Police or ambulance personnel will bring the intoxicated individuals to the detox unit as long as there is no danger they could harm themselves or others. If there was, the old option of the police cells would be used.

The 12 beds fold up into the walls to maximize space. There are washrooms and showers for men and women. The unit is staffed by addiction workers, trained medical personnel and support staff. An aboriginal support worker has been hired as well.

"This has been a much needed facility within the city of Saskatoon . . . 12 beds aren't very many, but it's a start, and it's a start in the right direction," deputy mayor Donna Birkmaier said.

Birkmaier then presented the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority with a cheque for $50,000. The money is half of the city's commitment of capital funding for the project.

The majority of funding for the $1-million addition to Larson House came from the federal government.

The detox unit is designed mostly for adults over the age of 18. There may be instances where a minor would be allowed in, but representatives at the unit said the city badly needs a formal youth detoxification unit.

Street kids 'don't see light at end of the tunnel'

Many young lost souls walking Saskatoon's streets have seen more tragedy than most adults, and their lives -- often drowned in alcohol and drugs too often go unnoticed, say those seeking solutions for these youths.

"For a lot of these kids, it gets so out of control that they just can't see any light at the end of that tunnel, anywhere, no matter how hard they're digging. Many tend to just keep burying themselves in further and at some point, the human spirit says, 'Screw it, I'm done,' " said Bill Thibodeau, executive director of EGADZ youth centre, which works with street kids.

Last weekend, 11-year-old Delores Bird went to sleep after a binge of drinking and, according to her uncle Ralph Bird, swallowing pills. She never woke up.

Ralph was asked to identify the body the next day because Delores' mother had allegedly left town. That's why Delores was roaming the streets and ended up at the apartment of a man she'd only met a few times.

That suite is next door to Ralph's in a building on Avenue T South. The neighbour was evicted just after Delores' death and a scribbled note on the door states: "This apartment is vacant. Don't bang on the door." A phone call to the landlord was not immediately returned.

The building is in a rough area, five blocks from a ramshackle house where a 44-year-old man was killed in a drunken brawl the day after Delores died.

Saskatoon police Sgt. Dick Melnychuk, who is in charge of the vice unit, says as a patrol officer working the night shift, he often saw children walking the streets all night.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," Thibodeau said. "I've been past that stage for a number of years."

Part of the problem is that communities often look for the "big" fix -- "the one thing that's creating all of this," he said. But it isn't that easy, as many issues such as peer pressures, parental involvement and societal barriers combine and become compounded "into something unmanageable."

Part of the solution is making sure there are solid role models somewhere in the child's life, said Bonny Braden, communications co-ordinator for the Kids Not in School (KNIS) program, which seeks to find ways to motivate youth who have dropped out of school to return to classes.

"If the parents aren't there, the teachers at school, even the secretary -- someone who will pay attention -- could make a difference," Braden said.

But many kids aren't in school. Delores wasn't, according to Ralph.

Thibodeau has seen 13-year-olds who haven't been in school for five or six years. KNIS estimates at least 1,000 school-age children in the city do not attend class.

"Kids as young as eight are falling out of school or have never even been registered. The schools don't even know about them -- it's like they don't exist," said Braden.

KNIS has lobbied for a provincewide tracking system for school-age kids, using health data instead of school registries. If kids haven't registered, registries offer little help, Braden noted.

Health data records information on everyone born in the city.

"We would know in five or six years that these kids should be in school. If not, we can go looking for them," said Braden.

However, there are confidentiality issues and the provincial privacy commissioner has expressed concern about using that information.

Street youth surveyed by KNIS indicated that better recreation opportunities would make a difference. The results were released in October with provincial Justice Minister Frank Quennell and June Draude, the Saskatchewan Party's aboriginal issues critic, attending the press conference.

"They just want a place to go, have fun, play sports," said Braden.

There are places for youth, like EGADZ -- which offers teen parenting and school support programs as well as outreach services -- the White Buffalo Youth Lodge, Core Neighbourhood Youth Co-op and SCYAP (Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Program), "but they all close at some particular hour, then those kids have to leave," said Melnychuk.

The Crisis Intervention Centre is there for those already in need of rescue and there are child protection officers to safeguard youth from grievous home situations. But the same challenges facing KNIS's tracking system come into play.

"Even if there are strong suspicions . . . there's privacy issues. Where is that line where you cross into the autonomy of a family to intervene?" said Melnychuk. "I don't envy anyone having to make that call."

In October, Quennell suggested a government strategy combining the resources of justice, health and education could be in the offing. He also expressed "hope that we'll be making more advances and providing more resources within this term (of government)."

But there were no guarantees offered Thursday.

Roger Carriere, executive director of the community care branch of the Health Department, said regional health authorities provide out-patient services to youth with addictions problems. The Calder Centre, a residential treatment centre in Saskatoon, has 12 beds dedicated to youth, he noted, adding the White Buffalo lodge has a full-time alcohol and drug counsellor.

Future improvements are always under consideration, Carriere said.

"Certainly, we've been in discussion on whether we're meeting the needs of the communities and what improvements can be made. We renew our programs on a regular basis."

Draude in October called on the province to build an addictions treatment centre for youth.

Detox centre sod turning

Detox centre sod turning

Brian Dueck shown with former chief Joe Penkala (right) during after sod-turning
for Brief Detox Center at Larson House in Saskatoon, 2003