It sounds counter-intuitive.
Maybe even a little crazy.
But some progressive shelters in Canada are helping homeless alcoholics by offering them free alcohol.
And they have found this new harm-reduction strategy actually works.
After the freezing deaths of several street alcoholics, who were turned away from shelters because they were too intoxicated, Ottawa’s Shepherds of Good Hope shelter initiated a managed alcohol program in 2001.
It was modeled after a pre-existing program at Toronto’s Seton House.
Shepherds’ residents shuffle into the dining room as early as 7:30 a.m. to fill their mugs with up to five ounces of free U-Brew white wine. Every hour a refill is available until 9:30 p.m.
The wine is brewed on the premises to cut costs. Besides the white wine, which is roughly 12 per cent alcohol, the shelter offers clients a red wine diluted with grape juice, to help those residents who are trying to lower their alcohol intake.
“The first thought for a lot of people is, ‘Oh, you’re giving an alcoholic a drink, what’s that going to do?’” Shepherds program manager Stephen Scudds said from Ottawa.
“But when you actually look at the statistics, the average chronic alcoholic in this program, before coming in, was drinking five to 10 times more when they lived on the street.
“And a lot of what they were drinking was a lot more harmful than wine, like Listerine and Aqua Velva,” he said.
“These people have probably tried programs 15 or 20 times and abstinence is obviously not a solution for them, so you need to create something that will help these people.”
The program also saves the city costs in emergency services, said Scudds.
“If these people are outside and they are drinking everyday, then the police are being called to deal with public intoxication, 911 is being called and emergency services is taking them to the hospital.
“When they are inside our program and their alcohol levels are managed, these phone calls aren’t taking place,” he said.
The shelter’s managed alcohol program currently provides 23 permanent residents with shelter, food, cigarettes and a daily quota of wine.
At 67, the oldest resident of the program has been drinking since he was 10 or 11, and had been on the street since he was 30.
He is missing the top half of both his feet, after passing out one winter night and getting severe frostbite.
When asked about other success stories, Scudds’ voice became animated.
“A lot of people would equate success with quitting drinking,” he said.
“But for me, a success story is to take someone who has been living on the streets for 20 years and is in terrible condition health-wise, hasn’t been connected with their family, has absolutely no sense of dignity and then to get them into this atmosphere.
“It’s a family atmosphere where they are connected with the same people everyday, they are connected with health professionals everyday — to give them back that sense of dignity, to me that is a success story.”
Shepherds is currently at capacity and there is a substantial waiting list.
“Our goal is to expand,” said Scudds.
The shelter also runs other programs, including a detox program.
If members of the managed alcohol program go out and return intoxicated, they remain in detox until their alcohol levels drop to a reasonable rate.
“We had so many chronically homeless alcoholic people, and they needed a safe place — a place that will give them back their dignity,” said Scudds.
There was one couple that had been living in the park for years, he said.
One of them became quite sick, and it became apparent they had to stop drinking.
“She wasn’t well before she came into the program, and basically we said, ‘You’re going to have to medically detox’,” he said.
“So, we managed their alcohol for awhile, because they had been drinking considerable amounts on the street, and gradually weaned them off, to the point where they weren’t drinking anymore.
“Coming up this fall it will have been three years they haven’t drank,” he said.
They moved out of the program two years ago and now have their own housing.
When asked about the possibility of establishing a managed alcohol program at the Salvation Army shelter in Whitehorse, captain Robert Sessford said he would be interested in looking into it.
“We care for people no one else wants to care for, including chronically addicted people,” said Sessford.
“Just a little walk around town would indicate what kinds of things people are consuming,” he added.
“I’ve seen lots of bottles, everything from Listerine to cleaners to stuff the YTG liquor stores sell, which is really just basically barrel-wash with sugar added to make it more addictive.”
The Salvation Army shelter doesn’t turn people away, even if they are intoxicated.
And if its 10 shelter beds are full, people are welcome to stay in the dining room for the night.
“The only time we turn people away is if they present a danger to others or themselves,” said Sessford.
Whitehorse’s Salvation Army shelter must follow the guidelines set out by the program secretary in Toronto, he said.
“In terms of harm reduction and wet shelters, we’re not involved,” said Salvation Army consultant Joanne Tilley from Toronto.
“Our philosophy and practice is that we believe zero tolerance is the way to go; it is part of our doctrine.
“We certainly shelter lots of people who are involved in all kinds of programs, including managed alcohol programs, but we don’t run those programs.”
The Salvation Army considers alcoholism a disease, said Salvation Army public relations director Brian Venables from Edmonton.
“So, the last thing you should be doing is ingesting alcohol if it is making you sick.”
Managed alcohol programs are only for people who have a long history of alcohol abuse, and the Salvation Army refuses to write anybody off, said Venables.
“No one is beyond redemption — no one is beyond changing their life and I think if you are providing free alcohol to them, you’re pretty much saying, ‘Well, you’re going to drink anyway, so here’s some free stuff.’
“It just doesn’t jibe with our philosophy.”
But harm reduction programs do not concentrate on rehabilitation or abstinence; the focus is on palliative care.
In managed alcohol programs, members see doctors, have better hygiene and fall into a regular routine.
Mouthwash, aftershave and drain cleaner become relics of the past.
“(In these managed alcohol programs) I can appreciate that people are safer. They’re not out buying from bootleggers or inhaling stuff that’s got some alcohol content to it, but at the same time you could say the same things for heroin use or crystal meth,” said Venables.
“And it does reduce harm for the neighbourhood, I’ll grant them that, cause everyone knows where they are. And everyone knows they are better behaved because they are being provided with free alcohol.”
Unfortunately, managed alcohol programs in Whitehorse remain a long way off.
The only emergency shelter is the Salvation Army and its policy is zero tolerance — Sessford’s hands are tied.