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External review underway at Phoenix Youth Programs 

The Halifax non-profit is examining its inclusion and diversity practices

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A n external review has begun at Phoenix Youth Programs, a Halifax non-profit that works with youth aged 15 to 24.

Phoenix executives say the review is not prompted by any one issue, but rather to ensure Phoenix maintains best practices going forward.

"I think we're going to see some areas that we're doing really well in, and we're also going to learn some stuff so we can be the best we can be as a social justice agency," says Melanie Sturk, director of organizational development.

Phoenix provides daily services like career counselling and recreational activities across seven locations on the Halifax peninsula, from a drop-in centre downtown on Coburg Road to a counselling centre in the Hydrostone. The organization also runs a long-term residence called Phoenix House, and the shorter-term Phoenix Shelter on Tower Road. Executive director Tim Crooks says they see around 700 to 1,000 youth each year.

"The thing that makes us unique is the broad, continuous services we have under one umbrella organization," says Crooks. "It's not unusual that we'll be with somebody for a decade."

The external review at Phoenix will focus on diversity and inclusion practices within the organization. It is being conducted by Ashanti Leadership, a Halifax-based professional development service.

Phoenix's annual Report to the Community for the 2017-18 fiscal year says that 62 percent of Phoenix youth identify mental health as a priority issue.

"I was a mess, I tried to push people away, and I'd already been kicked out of a number of group homes and shelters for suicidal ideation," says Jessica, a former youth who lived at Phoenix House for over two years and does not wish to share her last name. "The House was a turning point, they sat with me at the hospital numerous times. If it wasn't for Phoenix, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

Another adult who wishes to remain anonymous used programs like employment counselling and clinical therapy for almost 10 years before aging out of the services, and says Phoenix's programs helped them with everything from affording groceries to getting a scholarship for school, which in turn helped their mental health. "Things on my home front weren't great. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression, and I was looking for ways to deal with that," they say.

Fiona McAdam is a clinical therapist who works out of Phoenix Youth and Family Therapy on Young Street, which helps youth as young as 11. Between McAdam and two other full-time therapists, PYFT sees up about 140 youth and their families per year. They try to keep the waitlist for a first-time visit under eight weeks.

"We're really interested in minimizing the number of obstacles between youth and the services they need," says McAdam.

Despite the resources put into mental health at Phoenix, they are—like many similar programs across the country—facing a mental health crisis. In 2018, a youth died by suicide at Phoenix's Tower Road shelter. This was the first time a youth died on-site in Phoenix's 32 years of operation.

"We were, and still are devastated by that loss," says Crooks. "We were very committed to making sure the kids had access to the supports that they needed to get through that."

The organization was challenged again last summer after a racist incident with youth from Mulgrave Park at the Phoenix Youth and Community Centre in Mulgrave Park. Michelle West, who lives in the predominantly African Nova Scotian community and serves on the Community Action Committee in Mulgrave—which liaisons with Phoenix to ensure they provide appropriate programming for the community—says the incident was "quickly addressed."

"There were some actions from a staff person that caused the young people to believe that it was because of their colour," West says about the incident. "When it came to light, it was dealt with right away."

Phoenix staff typically meet with the CAC each month to get recommendations for new programming and hear feedback from the community.

"Phoenix called a meeting for the CAC, they came down and spoke with us about it and gave us the details," West says. "You can't ask for anything more."

West says she's already seen improvements since last summer.

"They have been doing training with staff in all of their locations, diversity and sensitivity training, and they have hired some additional people of colour," she adds.

Maurice James is the coordinator of PYCC in Mulgrave Park. He also grew up in the community, and says the residents have no fear of speaking out if they feel Phoenix isn't meeting their needs.

"We're constantly looking for ways to continue to provide supports to meet the needs of everyone, if possible," says James. "But I think it's just an ongoing process of learning and growth."

In relation to the specific incident, Phoenix's executives had no comment.

"I can't speak to that," says Sturk when asked if the employee involved in the incident at Mulgrave was still working at Phoenix.

The results of the Phoenix Youth Programs external review will be released to the public in June, and will include several recommendations for Phoenix as they look toward the future.

———
Editor's note: The original article stated that the racist incident happened at PYCC with youth from Mulgrave Park area. The incident did not occur at PYCC but did involve youth from Mulgrave Park area.
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