Responding to the health crisis among street-involved youth in Vancouver: Evidence to inform interventions and policy responses

Street-involved youth are extremely vulnerable to health-related harms resulting from high rates of illegal drug use and sexually-risky behaviour, poverty, and neglect, as well as precarious living conditions, either on the street or in risky relationships. There is an estimated 150,000 street youth in Canada, with approximately 40 percent reporting injection drug use. This puts street youth at a very high risk for sexually transmitted infections (STI) and hepatitis C (HCV) infection.

Dr. DeBeck’s research seeks to address gaps that exist in our understanding of how street youth are initiated in illegal drug use and the dynamic of how STI and HCV are transmitted.

Her work will examine individual (e.g. stimulant use), social (e.g. childhood trauma), structural (e.g. access and coverage of addiction treatment), and environmental (e.g. homelessness) factors and how they intersect to promote a “risk environment” that elevates sexual risk and drug-related harms.

The outcome of her analysis will be a body of evidence that can support the development and evaluation of behavioural and structural interventions to prevent sexual and drug-related harms among street-involved youth. Her work will also support clinical trials to address critical issues in the diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C among street-involved youth.

Ultimately, the results of her work will help prevent high-risk drug use, infectious diseases and other health harms among street-involved youth. It will also provide critical guidance for the effective management and treatment of infectious diseases among street involved youth.

End of Award Update – April 2024



Having dedicated research time through a Michael Smith/Providence Health Care Research Institute-St. Paul’s Hospital Scholar Award allowed Dr. DeBeck to build research networks and engage in inclusive collaborations through the At-Risk Youth Study (ARYS) cohort platform. As a Michael Smith Scholar she published more than 160 peer reviewed publications, 55 of which research trainees were the first author and she was the senior author. Dr. DeBeck has also been able to publish with nine different co-authors with lived or living experiences of substance use, the majority of whom identify as Indigenous. Her Scholar Award gave her time to network and collaborate with organizations like the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, the First Nations Health Authority, Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. She was also able to facilitate the creation of a program of ARYS Peer Research Associates (PRA) and more recently an Indigenous Peer Collaborators Circle to lead research involving Indigenous people who use drugs.



Collectively, Dr. DeBeck’s activities as a Michael Smith Scholar have contributed to a scientific evidence-based model that demonstrates that prevailing models of drug law enforcement are ineffective and carry serious unintended harms for structurally marginalized populations. Her work has documented that the criminalization of drug use hinders HIV prevention; incarceration is linked to a decreased likelihood of quitting drug injection and an increased likelihood of relapse into substance use; and incarceration has been discriminatory, disproportionately affecting young Indigenous people in Vancouver. Cumulatively, this body of work provides evidence that despite continuing to receive significant government funding, drug law enforcement has not been demonstrated to be effective and has serious unintended negative harms. This paves the way for evidence-based policy reforms that are not punitive in nature.

Other research contributions include characterizing the early stages of problematic substance use which underscores the role of social determinants of health (e.g., adverse childhood events, child welfare exposure, and intergenerational trauma) as drivers of substance. Documenting the role of social determinants of substance use draws attention to the necessity of policy reforms that attend to social and structural drivers of risk and counters popular narratives of individual moral failings and individual responsibility for substance use.

Contributions during her Scholar Award also include work on addiction treatment engagement that inform responses to the drug toxicity poisoning crisis. The policy implications of this body of work are that addiction treatment, despite demonstrated clinical effectiveness for some people who use drugs, has limited overall reach and impact. Based on these studies, expansion of addiction treatment cannot be expected to adequately respond to the toxic drug crisis. Additional interventions that span prevention and harm reduction, including addressing the toxic drug supply, are needed. Monitoring and evaluating innovative models that make regulated drugs or “safer supply” available is a critical next step for drug policy development and one that the ARYS cohort is ideally positioned to contribute to.

Another impact of Dr. DeBeck’s Scholar Award was the opportunity to leverage drug consumption data from the ARYS cohort and be part of the working group that drafted the City of Vancouver’s 2021 application to Health Canada for the decriminalization of drug possession. The introduction of drug decriminalizing has been symbolically monumental as it reflects the growing understanding that drug criminalization has been ineffective and harmful and different approaches to substance use are needed.


Potential Influence

Holding a Scholar Award allowed the ARYS cohort research platform to thrive under the leadership of Dr. DeBeck. It also gave her the opportunity to build critical research networks and collaborations that positioned her to transition to a CIHR Applied Public Health Chair and Dorothy Killam Fellowship in 2024. With this foundation in place, she is well positioned to continue to generate responsive, high-quality data to inform substance use interventions and drug policy. Current priorities are to engage in community-based collaboration with people who use drugs and government partners, to evaluate interventions and inform policy responses to prevent toxic drug poisonings, increase service engagement, and promote health and wellness among street-involved young people who use drugs in Vancouver and beyond.


Next Steps

With a CIHR APHC and Dorothy Killam Fellowship Dr. DeBeck can continue a research-intensive trajectory. Collaboration with ARYS PRAs and a newly formed Indigenous Peer Collaborator Circle are ongoing. Data sharing with government and community partners is also continuing with multiple research products under development.


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