New program helps homeless Edmontonians reduce non-beverage alcohol consumption

A new program run by Edmonton’s Boyle Street Community Services is helping people experiencing homelessness reduce their consumption of non-beverage alcohol.

Boyle Street's program started in June and has federal funding for 2 years

Boyle Street communications manager Elliott Tanti participates in the managed alcohol program's wine-making process. (Supplied by Elliott Tanti)

A new program run by Edmonton's Boyle Street Community Services is helping people experiencing homelessness reduce their consumption of non-beverage alcohol.

The first non-residential program of its kind in the city, the program started in June after a soft launch during the pandemic.

Fifteen participants, whose ages range from 29 to 60, visit a drop-in space daily where they consume or pick up two litres of red wine in 500-ml bottles. The participants produce and bottle the wine themselves and can access social services through the program.

Randy Thomson, who at 29 is the youngest of the group's participants, said the program has helped him stop drinking rubbing alcohol, which he turned to because he could not afford anything else.

"There was just nowhere to go, nowhere to turn," Thomson said in an interview on Tuesday.

Thanks to the supply of safer alcohol and support of his new community, he said, he has been attending doctor's appointments and housing meetings — commitments he would have missed had he been drinking.

"The staff actually helped me turn the whole thing around," he said.

Studying non-beverage alcohol use

While working at Boyle Street a few years ago, Sindi Addorisio noticed empty bottles of Listerine and hand sanitizer strewn around Edmonton's inner city.

She soon discovered a relative lack of academic research on non-beverage alcohol (NBA) consumption — the practice of consuming liquids like rubbing alcohol, mouthwash, hairspray, hand sanitizer, cooking wine and cologne. 

According to Alberta Health Services, consuming these products is dangerous, with risks of toxic effects and overdose, but people dependent on alcohol sometimes turn to them because they are cheaper, stronger and more widely available than alcoholic beverages.

Hand sanitizer in particular has become omnipresent during the pandemic.

"With it being everywhere and within arm's reach, I'm sure the intake has upped," Addorisio said.

Researcher and frontline worker Sindi Addorisio is a co-author of a recent study on non-beverage alcohol consumption among people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

After receiving a blessing from a local elder and partnering with the University of Alberta's School of Public Health, Addorisio set out to study NBA consumption among people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton.

Between November 2017 and June 2018, workers from Boyle Street and the 24/7 Crisis Diversion Team recruited 150 Edmontonians who had experienced homelessness in the previous six months.

Interviewers asked the participants, the majority of whom were male and self-identified as Indigenous, questions about their living situation, substance use and health.

Nearly a quarter of them reported consuming non-beverage alcohol within the past six months.

According to the study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Harm Reduction Journal, those who used non-beverage alcohol were older than those who did not and had higher levels of psychological distress. 

Lina Meadows is the program supervisor of Boyle Street's Non-Residential Managed Alcohol Program. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Addorisio said because people who consume non-beverage alcohol can become aggressive and loud, they tend to be unwelcome at social agencies.

She said peer-run programs like Boyle Street's, which she helped secure funding for, are working well, helping people improve their quality of life and find housing.

Plans to expand

Program supervisor Lina Meadows said for the most part, participants in Boyle Street's program have completely stopped consuming non-beverage alcohol since joining the group. Two have left to seek treatment, she added.

The federal government has contributed $592,899 to fund the program for two years.

Meadows said staff have goals of expanding it to include 30 participants and offer it at locations beyond inner-city Edmonton.

"It would be nice to have additional sites elsewhere and to be able to remove the stigma around people who consume non-beverage alcohol so that they can access the supports that they need," she said.