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Making wine for alcoholics

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?

42 comments to Making wine for alcoholics

  • Superb post, Zoom, with questions that are well worth the asking.

  • There was something about a similar program on This American Life this week. Really interesting.

    • Oh, interesting, I’ll give it a listen. I just listened to the one about drug courts in Georgia, and the young woman denied her anti-depressants and held in solitary confinement for “an indefinite period,” which turned out to be months until she finally slashed her wrists. It was a harrowing story.

  • That’s awesome–good for you guys. Very interesting to hear a firsthand account of these facilities.

    I believe also that people only get into this facility after all other rehab options have been exhausted (that is, they don’t just take every guy on the street with a bottle).

    I’m not sure if it’s available online, but there’s a documentary called “be smile” that follows an Inuit alcoholic living in Montreal. It partially adresses your question about what happens to these people.

    – RG>

    • Thanks Grouchy. You’re right, there are criteria that have to be met for admission to the program – and there’s a waiting list to get in. I’ll keep an eye out for ‘be smile.’

  • Eileen

    A superb post, Zoom. Congratulations to you both for taking the time to participate in such a worthwhile activity.

  • redfraggle

    Interestingly too – if they had money they could buy wine every night and would not be judged in the same way. It’s the poverty that really causes the stigma. Meeting people where they are – my mom was a social worker and always said the same thing.

    • When I was about 20 I worked at Brights Wines in the Market. A lot of my customers were street alcoholics, and they were used to being treated like scum. But there were several well-groomed elderly people who came into the store every day and bought three or four bottles of ’67 Sherry, just like the street alcoholics. They always said it was for ‘medicinal purposes,’ and everybody treated them in a civilized and dignified manner. I suppose it was because they had a home in which to get sloshed.

      • redfraggle

        I truly think so. People can so almost whatever they like in their homes. No one is the wiser. Lose the home and you can’t even sleep, eat or bathe in peace.

  • grace

    “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.”

    One of the smartest, kindest sentences ever written.

  • I absolutely agree with harm reduction and thanks to you and GC for volunteering for something so important and helpful. Congratulations.

  • Florence

    I absolutely believe that people should be met where they are. Harm reduction programmes are definitely a good way to go.

    • Excellent, I’m glad you agree Flo. I like to think most people would if they really thought about it, but that’s probably not true.

  • I am a psychiatric social worker and a firm believer in meeting people where they live and helping them move on IF they want to. What a great program you have. I’m not sure it would work here in the states. We tend to be very moralistic about these things.

    • Good point about “IF they want to.” The program is entirely voluntary. I think what many of them find is that once they have a place to live, and they no longer have to worry about where their next drink is coming from, they can start to work on other aspects of themselves. They start working on their health, or they take up art, or they reconnect with family, for instance. (I understand there’s a very talented Aboriginal artist living there.)

  • Excellent post. I didn’t know such a program existed.
    Addiction is a horrible thing – and something that we collectively as a society cannot ignore. Good work.

    • The program has been around for awhile, as one of many programs offered by the Shepherds of Good Hope. But they were always crammed into too-small quarters until last year, when this facility opened.

  • This is a prime example of how reading your blog has completely changed my view on these types of issues. This place sounds like a wonderful site, sorely needed. I’m behind it 100%.

  • grace

    Thanks too for posting this and moving that creepy picture further down the page.

  • Sid

    Great post. You make two really key points: harm reduction actually helps people AND it costs significantly less than crime-and-punishment approaches. I am consistently amazed by the mental/linguistic gymnastics certain apparently fiscally-conservative political leaders will undertake to argue against harm reduction strategies. Cheap + effective = good idea. It’s not rocket science. Too bad helping people rather than punishing them for their “sins” doesn’t buy more votes.

  • Sebastian

    i work at the Oaks, and at the Shepherds of Good Hope too. I’m not in too often, so we haven’t met. I just wanted to take a moment to commend you, both for volunteering your time at the Oaks, as well as for taking the time to write this.
    You have managed to humanize the residents, and make a good case for the program, all in one go. The social and economic benefits are well documented (Canadian Medical Association Journal), and it has a strong proponent, in that the program’s doctor is the head of the canadian medical association. And yet, few manage to make public the human aspect.
    Thank you for this.

    • Hi Sebastien. Thanks for the kind words. Dr. Turnbull is inspiring. I’ve heard him talk a few times, and he seems so down-to-earth, practical and wise.

      I’ll look forward to meeting you one of these days when we’re making wine.

  • Gillian

    I totally agree about harm reduction. You’re a good person. But even agreeing with you, it’s not an area or group I can work with; then nor are the elderly even though I’m catching up with them.

    • Gillian, I can understand that. But I’m glad you support harm reduction in principle, even if you’d rather not be working directly with the clientele.

  • Jenn Farr

    Great post.

  • jj cbelle

    Hi Zoom
    I just wanted to let you know that thanks to you (and my mom Grace) we are now looking at including the Managed Alcohol Program on the Canadian Best Practices Portal within a new innovative interventions section. I thought you might want to know what a difference your blog is making! Thanks to you (and mom for posting on Facebook) for bringing the program to our attention. I think it is a really great program that deserves some attention!

  • Zoom! I admire your commitment to service and common sense and kindness. Thank yous to you and GC for your humanity.

    • Thanks Cheryl. But really, I’m starting to feel funny about all the praise I’m getting here. I feel like I should start saying stuff like “I don’t think of myself as a hero. I just did what anybody else would have done.” 😉

  • This is an amazing post Zoom…I had no idea this program existed. You and GC are so inspiring.