A small memorial for one child’s overdose death has become a testament to the experience of youths and children in the opioid crisis.
The display was set up in the memory of Olivia Mahaney. The 17-year-old Victoria girl was found lying in front of a downtown academy at the corner of Wharf and Yates streets on the morning of Nov. 17 – first assumed to be unconscious but soon pronounced dead by Victoria police.
Her Wharf Street memorial was arranged in early December by friends and social workers to Victoria’s youth who are at-risk of precarious housing or drug use. Mahaney was “a bright, happy, friendly young girl,” said Laurie Kovacs, director of the Lighthouse centre for at-risk youth where she had frequently gone for support and socializing. According to Kovacs, Mahaney had been on the street for less than a year before her death.
A friend of Mahaney’s visited her memorial on the brisk and dry morning of Dec. 1. The woman, who gave her name as Jewelz, retraced a chalk message already printed on the side of the plant box remembrance: “You deserve the universe, so enjoy it,” it said. On the second visit, she left a new message: “Sorry I wasn’t there when I should have been.”
“She was an amazing, generous person,” Jewelz said afterwards. “I’d mom her when she was here, but obviously not enough … she didn’t deserve this.”
In the six months before her death, Mahaney frequented the Sanctuary Youth Centre; a Humboldt Street centre that provides youth aged 14 to 22 a warm meal, facilities, clothing and mental health supports six days a week. Its executive director, Darin Reimer, said in his seven years at the centre he’s personally known five youth who succumbed to overdose – three of whom died this year.
“The COVID crisis has exacerbated the problem,” Reimer said, as at-risk youth have legitimately struggled with boredom and restricted access to services. “It just spells trouble.”
In 2020 and the first 10 months of 2021, exactly 600 people in B.C. under 29 died from drug toxicity; 15 per cent of the 1,782 total deaths in the province over that period, amounting to the most ever seen in that period. In the full two years of 2018 and 2019 by comparison, 501 under 29 died.
Beyond those he knew personally, Reimer said he’s anecdotally heard of five Victoria youth succumbing to overdose in 2021 – all girls, and all Indigenous.
He said in the view of his centre, providing addicted youth with more options for safe injection – a popular opinion in harm reduction circles – is the wrong way of going about the issue. “We don’t do that with other things that endanger youths’ lives, so why would we do it with this,” he said. “It would change the vision of what we do – that all youth are living healthy and fulfilling lives, and are leaving street life.”
Rather, his centre advocates bringing forward a Safe Care Act. One introduced to B.C.’s Legislature in 2019 would allow the apprehension of youth who’ve experienced substance or sexual abuse, prior to a hearing on whether they should have a longer, 15 to 30-day detention for the purpose of treatment.
“The average individual can do a lot just by being friendly, looking an individual in the eye, saying hello, and communicating,” Reimer said for those who know or meet youth such as Mahaney. What’s missing, he said, is care and respect.
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