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Homelessness Forum and the Managed Alcohol Program

I spent yesterday at the Homelessness Forum, which was sponsored by the Alliance to End Homelessness.

This is my third year attending and blogging about this event (see 2007and 2008). I like it because it’s free. Actually, that’s an over-simplification. Because it’s free, it attracts the kind of people who might not normally attend conferences, including low-income people, front-line workers, and me. I like that. I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor with a homeless man who said he was there for the free lunch. (I noticed he stayed past lunchtime though.)

I also like the interesting mix of presenters. I’m always impressed with the young people on the panels. This year, an articulate young woman named MJ described her own harrowing journey to the streets. It’s pretty bad when the streets offer a safe refuge from your family.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull, Chief of Staff at the Ottawa Hospital and President-Elect of the Canadian Medical Association. He believes the reason we tolerate poverty is because of a deep-seated prejudice against the poor. Essentially we hold people responsible for their own poverty, despite the fact that there is ample evidence showing poverty is a structural problem, not an individual problem. Members of some groups are far more likely to live in persistent poverty, including Aboriginals, single parents, people with mental or physical disabilities, recent immigrants, youth, and unattached elderly people.

The Forum included an Aboriginal panel, a panel on Child, Youth and Family Homelessness, a short documentary filmed right here in Ottawa, and a presentation by two residents of a program in Toronto in which residents themselves set out to get their NIMBY neighbours on board – and succeeded.

They introduced the concept of Table Talks this year. You could pick one of about a dozen tables to sit at during lunch, each with a different focus. I sat at the Cardinal Suites table. That’s the new Shepherds of Good Hope facility opening up in my neighbourhood. (The Cardinal Suites, by the way, is being renamed The Oaks.)

I got to see the blueprints and learn more about the three programs, especially the Managed Alcohol Program. The Oaks is two buildings, next door to one another. The smaller building and the top three floors of the larger building will be the apartments and rooms that house the residents. The ground floor of the larger building will house the admin functions, staff offices, and common areas for both buildings, such as the kitchen, dining room, TV rooms, exercise room and wine-making room.

The Managed Alcohol Program provides hourly 5-ounce doses of home-made wine to its residents. This is enough to keep them from going into withdrawals, but not enough to get them drunk. That’s because they are formerly street-entrenched alcoholics who typically spent many years consuming five to seven bottles of cheap sherry, or the equivalent, each day.

I used to work at Bright’s Wines in the Market when I was young. I sold a lot of Bright’s 67 and St. George’s Sherry to men who came in every hour or two throughout the day. On a bad day they might have had to drink Aqua Velva or other substances that are high in alcohol content but not intended for human consumption. Five ounces of wine every hour is nothing to these guys.

If the Managed Alcohol Program were to buy that wine at the liquor store, it would cost them about $150,000 a year. By making it themselves, they save $130,000 a year.

Interestingly, the program also provides tobacco to their residents. In the early days of the program, they realized that they were losing clients to the streets because of their addiction to tobacco. Even though their drinking was being managed, they were back out on the streets, panhandling for smoking money. Pretty much all their clients smoke. This is just an interesting fact of life. There’s a really high correlation between smoking and mental health issues, and between other addictions and smoking. (I’m not sure why that is, but maybe it’ll be a topic for another day.)

To be eligible for the program, a client must have a long history of street drinking, complex health problems that are not being addressed because of the alcohol use, frequent use of emergency services (police, ambulance, etc.), and be causing concern in the community because of alcohol-related behaviours.

Residents are required to contribute $100 of their $118 personal needs allowance toward the cost of alcohol.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but this is a harm reduction program that has proven health and quality-of-life benefits for the participants, along with economic benefits for the rest of us. This program saves the City of Ottawa 3.5 million dollars a year in things like emergency services.

10 comments to Homelessness Forum and the Managed Alcohol Program

  • Carmen

    Tobacco is considered in many health circles (circles that deal with poor clients, Aboriginal clients, and clients suffering from mental illness) as self medication.

  • Gillian

    An excellent post as usual. I repeat what I’ve said before…I learn a lot from you.

  • futurelandfill

    One of these days, some smart managing editor at a local newspaper is going to call you up and ask if you’d consider writing a column. I’m not sure I’d advise accepting but lord knows there’s a handful of doofi out there that could be dropped in order to give you column inches.

  • Really really interesting post, zoom. Thanks so much for sharing the event notes!!

  • Actually, it sounds humane to me. Which is, of course, counter-intuitive to the self-righteous and non-poverty-stricken members of society, who manage their own addictions under a veneer of gentility. Thanks for telling us about another excellent initiative.

  • No NO NO you have this all wrong.
    Harm reduction programmes that actually help addicts of any sort and save money for the community, and make everyone, users and fellow citizens safer are all wrong.
    These people should be criminalized and marginalized till they stop making these choices.
    We’ve been doing that now for about 90 years and just look at the progress that’s been made.
    I must go now and look up a quote I read about insanity and doing the same thing over and over again. I’ll get back to you when I have it.

  • Julia

    I don’t have any scientific studies to give you but I am convinced that tobacco works just like an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medicine on the brain. Anybody who has smoked will tell you that when they feel upset or anxious, having a smoke makes them feel calmer and better.

    I would hope that, when assistance is given to anyone in any program, some information is also given to help those who got there by ignorance. Basic stuff like how to manage on hardly any money. It can be done but you have to be clever to figure it out on your own. There should be (free) how-to classes for folks living with very little money. But they should be practical and designed by someone who has actually and successfully lived like that.

  • Carmen, I can understand that. I used to smoke and I found it to be a pretty versatile substance. It could perk me up or calm me down, depending on what I needed at the moment.

    Gillian, thank you. You’re one of my earliest readers, and I always like to hear from you.

    Future Landfill, thank you for that kind compliment. I wish YOU were a managing editor at a local newspaper.

    Roro, thank you, I’m happy you found it interesting.

    Toni, that was a brilliant observation.

    Bandobras, I wonder WHY they keep doing the same old things that don’t work?

    Julia, I know what you mean but I’d rather see them give people enough money, rather than give them classes on how to survive without enough money. I’d also like to see certain people (mostly politicians and people with an anti-poor bias) try to live on a sub-poverty income themselves. They might gain some respect for the people who do it.

  • I really like what you wrote here – it’s very good. Thanks for posting this. As someone who has struggled with an addiction myself, I really appreciate what Craig Ferguson has to say about it. Visit my site if you’d like to read more. Have a good week!

  • Martie

    So what about the alcoholic living in poverty who never sets foot into such a program, ends up in a hospital countless times, never accepts help, receives social assistance and spends it on alcohol and smokes. We have these programs, but their brains are too far gone to understand the concept of getting help. When he dies on his face in alcoholic poverty, did we really fail him or was it his own choice that killed him? Is it fair to lay blame on anyone?