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A researcher chronicled the lives of Vancouver’s homeless youth. Then fentanyl arrived.

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A B.C. researcher spent the better part of 15 years following youth living on the streets of Vancouver, and the stories of their lives make up a new book she hopes will humanize young drug users and give faces to the overdose crisis.

Danya Fast, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of medicine and researcher for the B.C. Centre on Substance Use began her project in 2007, interviewing 20 people between the ages of 14 and 24 as they navigated homelessness and addiction.

Her research makes up “The Best Place: Addiction, Intervention, and Living and Dying Young in Vancouver,” and aims to shed light on the two very different faces of the city. On one side, Vancouver is seen as an affluent, cosmopolitan metropolis— the book's title references the 2010 Olympics licence plates that declared B.C. “the best place on earth”—when at the same time it’s is the site of entrenched poverty and the highest rate of toxic drug deaths in the country.

However, Fast tells CTV News she “never could have imagined” the shape her narrative would take as the years went on.

“My project really began with young people's dreams of place in the city, of the lives that they wanted to make for themselves in the city as they were navigating substance use and unstable housing,” she said Monday.

But then fentanyl arrived in the drug supply, and the youth she had gotten to know so well began to die. By the time Fast was writing the final sections of the book, half of her subjects’ lives had been cut short. All died from overdoses, except for one, who was killed in a violent incident.

The book was now not just about teenage life on the margins of Vancouver, but about dying tragically young in it. Especially during COVID-19, Fast had to keep going back to re-write the endings of her subjects' stories.

Since 2016, when the toxic drug crisis was declared a public health emergency, more than 14,000 British Columbians have lost their lives to overdoses. According to the BC Coroners Service, 184 of those who died were under the age of 18, and just under 2,300 were between the ages of 19 and 29.

Fast says her book offers a different perspective on how to address the ongoing crisis, particularly when it comes to helping young people.

“To save these young lives, I think, you know, this is why people talk about a regulated drug supply being so important,” said Fast. “The (street) drug supply is so deadly, it's so dangerous, that it's hard to imagine any amount of programming having the same kind of impact as removing these toxic drugs that, you know, at any moment can take a life.”

But while treatment “is a very important piece of the puzzle” for young people who are ready for it, Fast highlights a need to think beyond it.

“What I often heard from young people, you know, ‘treatment doesn't get me anywhere… what I really want is something to fill my time, something to bring me joy,’” she said.

What’s urgently needed are programs that give vulnerable youth a sense of purpose, Fast explained, adding that her book highlights the continual instability of the places young people cycle through in their lifetimes—government care, the criminal justice system, shelters and the streets—so they need somewhere to go where they can make connections and do something they’re passionate about.

“Because in the absence of that, drugs do a really good job of connecting young people to each other, of connecting them to fun, to excitement, of filling their time. So we need other things that that young people can engage in that also fill those roles,” Fast said.

The Best Place is available now through UBC Press. 

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