A non-profit agency that provides social services to people living on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is running a unique program aimed at helping extreme alcoholics.

The Portland Hotel Society is teaching them how to make their own booze at its Drug Users Resource Centre.

The organization already runs several treatment and detox programs for people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. Mark Townsend, the society's executive director, says those treatment options remain the first choice. However, an alternative may be necessary to help extreme alcoholics who drink rubbing alcohol, hair spray or hand sanitizers.

"They're very damaged folk and they're not connected. So this is a way of connecting them and steering them away from such dangerous forms of alcohol to something more mainstream," said Townsend.

Some 90 people are currently taking part in the managed alcohol program — called the Drinkers' Lounge — which requires participants to pool their own money to buy beer and wine-making ingredients. They can then brew their own as an alternative to the more dangerous alcohol they are consuming.

People are only eligible if they attend a weekly meeting to learn about treatment options.

Consistent with other harm reduction programs

Dr. Tim Stockwell, director of B.C.'s Centre for Addictions Research, says the program is in line with others aimed at keeping people safe and minimizing their exposure to disease. 

"It's consistent with a range of harm reduction programs that are currently happening in Canada for this population who have usually failed at traditional abstinence treatment over and over again, present huge problems in emergency departments, for police services, and are very costly on the public purse," said Stockwell.

"There's the prospect, if managed properly, that this takes this population away from very harmful non-beverage sources of alcohol, helps them calm down their drinking, and drink a bit less and less." 

He added that extreme alcoholics often die prematurely. This type of program can give dignity to their troubled lives.

The Portland Hotel Society recently made headlines for another controversial harm reduction service: vending machines that distribute crack pipes for 25 cents

With files from CBC's Robert Zimmerman