GC and I made 4,000 bottles of wine yesterday. It’s for the Managed Alcohol Program at The Oaks, which is under the Shepherds of Good Hope umbrella. We’re the new volunteer assistant winemakers.
There’s a wine-making room on the premises, where they make the equivalent of 4,000 bottles every five weeks. Making the wine instead of buying it saves about $130,000 per year.
We empty nine 10-pound bladders of syrup into a 45-gallon drum, fill it with water, and sprinkle nine envelopes of yeast on top. Then we move on to the next drum. It’s sticky work, but easy. In five weeks we’ll filter it; they tell us that’s the hard part. (We won’t actually bottle it, by the way. It’s hooked up to a draft line, and will be on tap at the front desk, where it’s dispensed to residents.)
The residents are all formerly hardcore street-level alcoholics. These are the kind of alcoholics who might have drunk aftershave when the liquor stores were closed. Most of them are elderly and appear to have chronic health issues and disabilities in addition to alcoholism.
The program, which converted an old motel into a residential community, provides them with a room, meals, access to health care, social workers, exercise programs, homemade alcohol and rolled cigarettes.
The residents pay most of their income (generally public and/or private pension benefits) towards the costs of the program.
It’s controversial. Some question why we would ‘reward’ alcoholics with a decent standard of living, especially one that includes alcohol.
As a proponent of harm reduction programs in general – from seatbelts to safe injection sites – I think the Managed Alcohol Program makes sense.
These people have lived with an all-consuming level of alcoholism all their lives. Having them living on the streets is expensive in terms of their use of emergency services (medical and criminal justice).
It’s also, I would argue, expensive to us as a society in terms of how we must harden ourselves to the sight of other human beings’ misery.
Harm reduction programs meet people where they are. Instead of judging or moralizing, the Managed Alcohol Program accepts that some alcoholics are unlikely to ever quit drinking, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve already lost so much to their alcoholism and are still drinking – and offers them an environment where they can continue to drink (enough to keep them from experiencing withdrawal symptoms) and still have their other basic needs met for the last few years of their lives.
We work in the wine room, so we don’t spend a lot of time with the residents. But we do see them on the way in and out. And what strikes me is that this looks like a health care facility. Old folks shuffling to the bathroom, people hooked up to oxygen tanks, people in wheelchairs, nurses tending to patients. Before The Oaks opened last year, did we really leave people this sick and disabled and elderly to live – and die – on the streets, just because they were alcoholics?