June 26, 2017
On his first day in Vancouver — as a new social work student at UBC— David Renaud found himself at Main and Hastings Street at 1 am.
“I was shocked,” he says. But the reason for his shock will astonish many readers. “I’d heard this was a place of disorder and what I found instead was a different type of order — a community with its own kindness and respect. I was taken aback at how the places we come from and our beliefs shape what we see. What I saw was nothing like what is represented in the media.”
Defying media stereotypes is just part of the work David faces in his job as clinical lead for mental health care at Phoenix. In his work, he carries a case load of people who face difficult challenges. He also develops curriculum, collaborates on community development, problem-solves with counsellors and residents, and supervises nurses and students. He’s assisted in his work by his large white husky-shepherd named Loki. “People often come to see Loki first when they’re needing an ear,” he says.
One of the issues that strikes David the hardest is the impact of trauma on many of the residents. The trauma might be something we all face eventually, such as losing a parent, or it might be more insidious, such as bullying, or physical or sexual abuse. “People who use substances problematically are pretty much people who have suffered childhood trauma,” he says. “They use substances to cope with abuse, marginalization. Then we later punish them when they were trying to cope in the best way they knew how.”
David’s longtime interest in social justice led to his first degree in social geography from the University of Guelph. But in finishing that program, he came upon the scientific literature about the social determinants of health. The concept — that social and economic conditions determine everyone’s risk of physical and mental illness — had him hooked.
“I needed to make a difference rather than just think about the theoretical issues,” he says, and he decided to enroll in social work. He did his undergrad work at the University of Waterloo and landed his first job in the field as a youth worker at a youth shelter in Ontario. Most of the kids had substance use issues, he remembers.
A few years later he decided to seek his Master’s degree and came to Vancouver — largely because it was the home of Insite, North America’s first supervised injection facility. Once here he soon landed a job at Directions Youth Detox, one of the only youth-focused detox facilities in North America. Then, before coming to Phoenix, he interned with the Pivot Legal Society and Vancouver Coastal Heath.
Now, having been at Phoenix for three years, he is proud of what the organization accomplishes every day. “Phoenix helps people feel they are part of a welcoming community again,” he says noting that many drug users end up feeling ostracized or excluded from family and friends.
He’s also happy to see that an increasing number of people who have used drugs and who are in recovery are speaking out about their experiences. “The best way to counteract marginalization and oppression is for people to participate within broader society,” he says. “When that happens, we’ll live in a much more kind, just and humane world.”