'Wet shelters' can reduce crime, advocates say
Homeless shelters that make controlled amounts of alcohol available for addicts would help reduce violence in downtown Edmonton, advocates say.
"Wet shelters are open 24 hours a day. They live there. They don't have to leave," said Sandy Erickson from Boyle Street Community Services. "Alcohol is administered to them and that stops their body from withdrawing."
Once clients are stabilized they are given help with health issues.
The first wet shelter or managed alcohol program was started in Toronto about 14 years ago following a coroner's inquest into the deaths of three homeless men.
Wendy Muckle runs a similar program in Ottawa. She says petty crime is down and calls to emergency responders have dropped.
"It's not just significant in terms of police calls and ambulance calls but also days incarcerated, days admitted to hospital," she said. "All of those things are really expensive."
Edmonton Police are looking at ways to reduce violence in the city in light of this year's soaring homicide rate. One idea is to reduce access to alcohol in high crime areas by limiting store hours and prohibiting the sale of inexpensive, potent brands of liquor.
But Erickson worries that these types of restrictions could push alcoholics to drink mouthwash and hand sanitizer and turn to more violent crime.
"In some cases, if they're not switching to non-beverage alcohol substitutes, then they're going to be looking at ways to get more money to buy the higher-priced alcohol, which could result in more crime here, more people being assaulted because they have money, more aggressive panhandling," she said.
Mayor Stephen Mandel supports the idea of a wet shelter and said plans for such a facility will be unveiled next month in a report on people who are hard to house.
"You can't bury your head in the sand when it comes to the issues that you face within society," he said.
"And in order to get people off alcohol you can't just do it for everybody one way and so, a facility that would offer those kind of options, I think, is important."
Erickson believes there would be fewer deaths and less trouble on the streets if a wet shelter program was offered in Edmonton.