YES, THERE’S A PLACE FOR TEENAGERS WHO USE DRUGS
Older people who use drugs may remember Ted Noffs’ Wayside Chapel. One of the first organisations to work with people who used drugs, the Wayside began in an era where many of those working in the field had a religious background and little training or understanding of drug use or people who use drugs. Programs were developed without the benefit of research; stigma and discrimination ran riot; and “tough love” was the order of the day.
Fifty years on, the Noffs Foundation is a very different service provider, reaching out specifically to young people with evidence-based care and harm reduction techniques. We talked to Ted Noffs’ grandson Matt about his service and how the Foundation supports young people.
UN: What does the Noffs Foundation offer?
MN: If you are a young person aged 13 to 17 or a family member and you want to find out about our services, call our free numbers 1800 151 045 (NSW/ACT) or 1800 753 300 (QLD) or go to our website https://noffs.org.au/. We run 7 Street Universities around Australia; 2 residential rehabs called PALM (Program for Adolescent Life Management); 2 community based versions called CALM (Continuing Adolescent Life Management); services for homeless young people; social enterprises like Street University Clothing which is run by young people; family support. We have services in Sydney’s east and west, Canberra and southern Queensland. Our services are free. There’s a short waiting list for the residential rehab but none for the Street Universities.
UN: I’m a teenager, I’m living on the street, using ice, a few pills, whatever I can get. I go to a youth drop in centre and someone there tells me I should talk to Noffs. Why? What can you do for me?
MN: I’d get you started at a Street University; they’re pretty special. In fact, Chuck D from Public Enemy called the first one “a work of art.”
Here’s how it is: You walk in, you hear some young person spitting ridiculously good freestyles in the back corner where there’s a mic and speakers. A worker comes up to you and says “hi” and gives you a tour. She shows you the basketball court and then takes you through the studios where you too can record music, dance, relax, grab a bite to eat for free.
Then she says “This place is free but I just need to ask some questions so I can work out if there’s anything I can help you with.” At that point we do an assessment and find out if there’s issues going on for you like trauma, violence at home, issues with the cops, court and of course, drugs. That’s the moment treatment begins which may include a referral to one of our other services.
Young people aren’t mandated to come to the Street University but thousands upon thousands turn up because they want to be there. In the clinical world you’d call it a “brief intervention” with trust building over a few months but I call it creating a community.
UN: If a young people says to one of your workers: “The fact is, I like taking drugs and I don’t think I want to stop completely ... but I do want a better life”, how is that dealt with?
MN: It’s not about whether a young person uses drugs or not. We’re not about “stopping drug use” - that’s unrealistic, it’s judgmental and it doesn’t work. What does work is this: Understand the needs and wants of a young person and help them build a vision for how their life could be.
If she walks in and says “I’m sick of my ice but I love my weed” then our job isn’t to judge. If she walks out and she can get up in the morning and enjoy her life but she still smokes that’s a win for her and for us. Our job isn’t to create good mortgage paying citizens - it’s to support flourishing lives.
Counselling is a part of that support but so is creative expression. Everyone of us does better when we feel like we have a reason to live and every single one of us has different reasons. Treatment isn’t a one size fits all. It’s about each human being.
For a long time the field was split and it was harm reduction vs. abstinence. I think the field has found some peace between the two. We need to work together. The word “treatment” needs to go and should be replaced with something that means “community” or “helping each other.”
UN: Do you know what happens to young people after they have been to you?
MN: Over half the young people we see completely stop using drugs. Criminality drops by over 50% and suicidal ideation drops from 1 in 2 to 1 in 10. But that’s success for government - that’s not how we see success. Let’s look at failure. Failure to me is when a kid leaves us and they’re still heavily involved with crime and they can’t sleep and they hate life. That’s pretty rare for us. Overall, success to me is seeing a young person get on with their life and enjoy it whether they continue to use drugs or not.