Every day, on the hour, almost two-dozen alcoholics line up at a Hamilton facility for a beer, or a glass of wine.

It's not a bar. It's a Wesley Urban Ministries facility, for their managed alcohol program, known as the "Harold E. Ballard Special Care Unit."

It's one of a handful of Canadian programs that gives a regulated, hourly dose of alcohol to alcoholics to help manage their addiction. Controversy follows these kinds of programs, as it seems counter-intuitive to some – but it's a lifeline that helps people get their lives back on track, says Daljit Garry, the Executive Director of Wesley Urban Ministries.

​"It's new to some people, and unfortunately carries some controversy," she said. "But this is a safe place. It's a safe place to start your journey.

"And everyone deserves a home."

Wesley's program is actually one of the oldest of its kind, having opened up ten years ago. Back then, there were only two other managed alcohol programs in the country.

Since then, the unit has flown under the radar — but each year, an average of 42 people move through its doors. "We've been very low key," Garry said.

Wesley is extremely protective of the people who are in the program, and would not allow them to be interviewed. They also asked that the location of the facility not be named.

Helping those on the edge

There are 22 beds in the unit — 16 for men and six for women. All of the people were previously homeless or in shelters. The program is funded by the LHIN (Local Health Integration Network), as well as donor/agency support and participant fees. The Harold E. Ballard Foundation supported the capital costs related to the women's wing.

Wesley provides lodging, food, access to primary health care, and helps teach life skills to the people in the unit. One of those is brewing their own beer — Garry says that it keeps costs down on their end, and also gives the people in the unit a cheaper option for when they leave.

Hamilton managed alcohol

Residents in the Harold E. Ballard Special Care Unit brew their own beer. (CBC)

When in the program, people have to agree to move away from "non-consumables," like rubbing alcohol or mouthwash. Their alcohol also needs to be dosed, and is doled out once an hour, from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day.

The one drink per hour isn't enough to get people drunk, but is enough to level them off. "They need to agree to some level of change, because it's all about stability for them," Garry said.

Some people in the program do quit drinking and reconnect with their families, she says. Others manage to reign in their addictions enough to get a job, or move into other types of care. "We can see people getting healthy," she said.

The unit is one of several blocks in Hamilton's harm reduction strategy, which essentially prioritizes the health and stability of a person above all else. Other examples of local harm reduction programs include the city handing out free, clean crack pipes and a needle exchange, as well as a study on the viability of creating a safer injection site in the city.

Programs catch the eyes of international researchers

Canada's managed alcohol programs have also caught the attention of health care researchers in Australia.

Kate Dolan, a professor at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Australia, visited similar programs in Ottawa and Vancouver and was impressed.

"We used to lead the world in harm reduction services," Dolan told the fifth estate, but "the alcohol field has not progressed as much as the illicit drug use field."

Research led Dolan to Ottawa's program. She found managed alcohol programs to be cost-effective through reductions in spending on health care and emergency services — which essentially means the same people wouldn't be the subject of 911 calls and cycling through emergency rooms.

Participants also significantly reduce their alcohol consumption and learn a sense of community, Dolan found.

"It's about a continuum," Garry said.

"It's about starting somewhere."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

With files from Virginia Smart