Treating alcoholics with wine: A look inside Edmonton's program

For Angela Decoteau there is no doubt, serving alcohol to alcoholics is giving some of Edmonton’s most vulnerable people a chance to find stability.

'You have to start somewhere and, one at a time, we're trying to help them'

Residents of Ambrose Place in Edmonton are supplied with small controlled, quantities of alcohol. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

Angela Decoteau has no doubts that serving beer and wine to alcoholics has given some of Edmonton's most vulnerable people a chance to find stability.

She's a housing support worker and manager at Ambrose Place, a supportive-housing facility in Edmonton's McCauley neighbourhood that provides shelter for 50 Indigenous people with disabilities or chronic substance abuse problems.

All the residents were once homeless.

The facility opened in February 2015, after 11 years of planning, court challenges and construction. It provides nursing care and cultural programming to its clients.

It also supplies them with wine, beer and coolers — alcohol that is dispensed much like medicine, in controlled, hourly doses.

The hope in harm reduction 

"We do it on an individual basis," Decoteau said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Some people get only one drink per hour. Some people will only get one beer every three hours.
Ambrose Place was named in memory of Ambrose Daniels, who died while living on the streets of Edmonton.
We look at each individual person and we work with the doctors, we work with addictions counsellors right on site."

Edmonton is one of eight cities across Canada that has adopted managed alcohol programs (MAPs). 

The harm-reduction programs, which proponents say have given new hope to alcoholics across the country, has sparked international interest from front-line agencies looking to follow the Canadian model. The technique was also the subject of a CBC Fifth Estate documentary called The Pour, which aired for the first time this month. 

Though Decoteau acknowledges the detriments of drinking, she said abstinence programs are virtually impossible for some addicts.

Controlled alcohol consumption allows her clients to focus on improving other areas of their lives.

"Some of these people have been living on the street for 40 years and drinking every day," she said. "You have to start somewhere and, one at a time, we're trying to help them."

Ambrose Place is operated by Niginan Housing Ventures, a non-profit that specializes in Indigenous housing.

It was the brainchild of Edmonton social worker Faye Dewar, who named the facility in memory of one her clients, Ambrose Daniels, who died on the streets because he had nowhere to go.

The building has affordable housing units, along with supportive housing on the second and third floors for people still dealing with addictions or are recently sober.
The supportive housing facility in Edmonton's McCauley neighbourhood opened last year. (Ambrose Place )
The method reduces the strain on emergency services, police and health-care providers, and helps addicts learn to control their consumption, said Decoteau. 

"With the homeless population on the street, they drink their alcohol really, really fast," she said, "because they don't want anyone to come and take it, or they don't want to deal with the police.

"So, you're looking at the already most-vulnerable population. If they drink that really fast and get loaded, they become even more vulnerable."

'Some of them have many, many layers of trauma'

Research shows managed alcohol programs have dramatically cut down on emergency services and health-care spending in the areas they operate.

A University of Victoria study recently looked at a managed alcohol program in Thunder Bay, Ont., called Kwae Kii Win.

The study, published in May 2016, found that participants were admitted to emergency rooms 47 per cent fewer times than when they weren't in the program. Their interactions with police were also down 41 per cent.

After a year working with clients in the facility, Decoteau has faith in the process. Some of her clients have quit drinking completely. For those who haven't, she knows they are living with a level of dignity that's impossible on the streets.

"Some of them have many, many layers of trauma that they've had in their lifetimes, so we're working on helping take all those layers off and getting to the root of the problem," she said. 

"Some days are very difficult. But when you bring these people in and you get to know them, you don't look at them in a negative way. When you give them some love and you treat them with kindness and respect, they do amazing."