City councillors in Thunder Bay heard Monday night how the managed alcohol program at Shelter House is working — and even saving the city money.
Researcher Tim Stockwell of the University of Victoria said the 15 people who use the program, which administers a six-ounce drink of wine every hour-and-a-half, have a better quality of life than a homeless person. The managed alcohol facility has given the participants hope that they can turn they lives around, he said.
"Participants felt they could reconnect with their family in a way they hadn't before. They had been written off, they had lost contact with family members."
He noted the program keeps people out of trouble with the police, and away from drinking mouthwash or hairspray.
Stockwell and researchers tracked 18 people who are in, or who have been in the Kwae Kii Win managed alcohol program, and compared them with 20 other homeless people who are clients with Shelter House. He said they found the managed alcohol program clients went to hospital 37 per cent less often, went to detox 88 per cent less, and had 54 per cent fewer emergency room visits. They also had about 40 per cent less police contact.
Councillor Rebecca Johnson wanted to know how much the city could save by making the program permanent.
"There seems to be a success here. There's economic benefits to it,” she said.
“At the same time, as a pilot project, it will end. What would we be looking at if we actually had to fund a program like this?"
The executive director of Shelter House said the program costs about $500,000 per year to run, and is cheaper than having people live on the streets, tying up emergency services. Patty Hajdu said she’d like to see the program become a permanent fixture in Thunder Bay.
"We consider — and so should you with all respect —[the program to be] essential services for the community of Thunder Bay,” Hajdu said.
“If we don't take care of our homeless and sick people, we can't achieve the goals of a clean, green, beautiful, safe and vibrant community."
Councillors heard that some studies have shown a homeless person uses about $130,000 of social services per year.
Hajdu highlighted the benefit that many clients have connected with family since being in the program.
"We'll help the residents with money management. So, at Christmas time, numerous people started putting money away from their remaining portion of their social assistance so they could actually send a gift home for their child, who they had not connected with for a long time."
Participants are all on social assistance, and pay a percentage of their monthly cheque to the shelter for room and board, which covers about 20 per cent of all costs.
The City of Thunder Bay pays about $70,000 in grants towards the program.
Hajdu noted that, while the managed alcohol program has 15 spots for clients, demand for the program can easily bump that number up to 40.
"The things that we had hoped the managed alcohol program would achieve, they have, in fact, started to achieve,” she told CBC News in an earlier interview.
Research was conducted using a variety of health tests, as well as reviewing records from alcohol administration, hospital and police.
The results from the six-month research project are encouraging, Hajdu said.
"We knew from previous investigation that likely this would be the results from this type of program — and that's why Shelter House went with it,” she said.
“However, we did not have local evidence that such an approach would have the same effect in Thunder Bay."
Hajdu said the Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria will continue to study the program for another two years, and use the data as part of its national research.
The research will also help those running the program “to develop some sort of guidelines for people who are interested in starting up these programs in Canada."
“We're sort of doing all this in isolation,” Hajdu continued. “So what we're hoping to do is sort of set up a community practice. People who are offering these types of services are going to communicate and talk about what works and what doesn't work.”