Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 29, 2018

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Winnipeg will soon open a ‘wet shelter’

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Tailoring a program to tackle homelessness and alcoholism saves lives

 

Maybe it’s time we woke up and realized that how we’ve been dealing with a certain segment of homeless people in this city just isn’t working.

You probably know the ones I mean: you pass by them if you walk downtown on your way to a Jets game. Heck, you may occasionally give a buck or two while they panhandle outside the bus shelter as you catch your bus home. Sometimes, you avoid them, cutting them a wide path while they sleep it off in a puddle of their own urine, after they’ve spent an afternoon drinking.

Winnipeg, like any city, has a certain percentage of chronic alcoholics who are hard to house. But unlike most other major cities in this country, we still do not have a program in place to help them.

But that’s about to change, thanks to Main Street Project, which has been working hard at getting Winnipeg its first “wet shelter,” meaning a managed-alcohol program for chronic alcoholics.

Main Street Project executive director Rick Lees says his organization is looking at announcing later next month plans to offer 34 beds to residents who are considered extreme health risks — binge drinkers who are, in some cases, close to death and cannot find shelter anywhere else. They will be provided housing, food and managed alcohol in a safe environment.

Here’s the deal: when you’re an alcoholic, you can drink yourself into a stupor and fall asleep on your couch or in your bed and you really don’t bother anyone. But when you’re a homeless alcoholic, your ability to find a place to sleep is severely limited.

Main Street Project is the one place in Winnipeg that will take homeless people when they have booze on their breath — as they term it, it’s a low-barrier shelter — so clients who are stoned or drunk can still find a place to sleep. But it only has 85 beds.

All other facilities are considered “dry” shelters, operating on the premise that they help those who are homeless deal with their addictions by offering them a safe place when they are sober.

But for a certain percentage of people, being sober is not ever going to happen. And our approach of forcing sobriety on them isn’t going to work. Park your moral judgments now, folks.

Increasingly, poverty, housing and public-health activists have begun to look to a new solution — these “wet shelters,” or managed-alcohol programs, are a way of dealing with those who are hard to house as a principle of harm reduction. Lucille Bruce, the CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg, says that while there is a need for safety in shelters and housing that can be found by requiring that the residents are sober, for a certain percentage there is also a need for shelters where people who are intoxicated can be kept safe.

But “wet shelters” go beyond allowing residents to be housed while intoxicated. In places such as Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Kenora, Edmonton and Toronto, residents are provided alcohol in a managed program, to prevent binge drinking and to limit the consumption of non-beverage alcohol on the streets (including mouthwash, hand sanitizer and cough syrup).

These programs offer up to 11 hourly drinks a day, providing chronic alcoholics safe access and preventing them from becoming ill from withdrawal.

What has been the outcome?

Lees says it simply: “It sustains people’s lives. People live longer.” In fact, he says there are six clients who have been identified as having only a year to live, whom he hopes will be offered comfort, safety and perhaps an extension of their lives by Main Street Project once the new program opens.

As well, he says the program will save money in the long run because the clients will no longer strain services such as health care, emergency rooms and the justice system. In studies done across the country, savings have been realized in terms of ER costs, paramedic and police-service utilization, decreased prison time, decreased vandalism and petty theft, less harm to the individuals and fewer deaths.

The Kwae Kii Win Centre in Thunder Bay opened in 2012, providing 15 clients with a managed-alcohol program. In a study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2016, participants talked about how the shelter became a community for them and how they began to learn new skills and build upon their own skills once their need to find booze and shelter had been met.

It’s easy to say that a managed-alcohol program means these residents don’t have to try sobriety, that it just gives them an excuse to stay drunk and live off the system. But the bottom line is this: for some people, sobriety is never going to happen, no matter how much we scream at them that it should. So what harm could kindness do?

 

Shannon Sampert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Winnipeg and the director of EvidenceNetwork.ca.

April 2018

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