No more drunk tank: Community leader seeks new approach to public intoxication

An advocate for Winnipeg's Indigenous community is calling on public agencies and city hall to do more for people struggling with alcohol addiction.

Plans for 24-hour drop-in, managed alcohol program floated

An empty fortified wine bottle lies on the ground in downtown Winnipeg. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

An advocate for Winnipeg's Indigenous community is calling on public agencies and city hall to do more for people struggling with alcohol addiction.

"We want a better health approach to these issues," said Damon Johnston, president of the Public Safety and Community Wellness Alliance.

The group was established about a year-and-a-half ago and is comprised of public sector, community and business leaders in Winnipeg. Its aim is find practical solutions to chronic and acute substance abuse in Winnipeg, chair Helen Clark said.

Damon Johnston says it's time alcoholism in Winnipeg was treated as a medical issue. (Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce)

Johnston, who is also president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and sits on the Mayor's Indigenous Advisory Circle, said other cities in Canada, including Edmonton and Calgary, are experimenting and having success with new ways of treating addiction.

He pointed to some of the concerns he has about the Main Street Project, an organization that cares for individuals who come voluntarily, as well as those who are taken there by the police for public intoxication.

"For years, people have been talking about the conditions of that particular facility," Johnston said.

He said the Main Street Project should be more focused on being a safe, short-term drop-off spot rather than an organization focused on the long-term health and well-being of clients.

"[Clients] want to be at a place where they can talk about issues with people, with professionals, counsellors," he said.

He said there are also calls for more Indigenous leadership at organizations like the Main Street Project because many of their vulnerable clients are Indigenous.

"Under the notion of reconciliation, our community has been, and continues to be, concerned," he said. "Our people should be hired in some of those organizations to bring the expertise and knowledge base they have to those organizations."

'We're pretty offended'

"We're pretty offended by Damon's comments. I'll be honest with you," said Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project.

"Damon [Johnston] hasn't set foot in my office in a year," he said.

"There's lots being done," he said of work at his organization.

The Main Street Project takes in about 11,300 clients a year, Lees said.

"They're fed while they're with us and then they leave with food," he said, adding that the organization offers transitional housing and detox services.

Staff at the organization check each client's vital signs every 15 minutes. Every client is assigned a case worker who can help decide what the best steps are for them.

Looking at the whole system

Johnston said he never meant to cause offence but said it's important organizations in Winnipeg are receptive to constructive criticism.

"We're looking at this system in total and all parts of it," he said. "We've built societies that are siloed to some degree, you know. The structures we've created are often not conducive to inter-organizational communication."

He is calling for more partnerships between organizations and approaching addictions on a holistic level.

One of the ideas the Public Safety and Community Wellness Alliance is pursuing is the establishment of a 24-hour drop-in centre that would actually supply addicts with regulated doses of alcohol to ease withdrawal symptoms.

The model has been used in several other Canadian cities and Johnston said he hopes a pilot program can be done in Winnipeg.

He is also interested in work being done in Edmonton to establish a safe-injection site in the city.

"I'm not saying we need them here but it's not something you should rule out," he said.

The Public Safety and Community Wellness Alliance is developing a business plan right now to see whether a more integrated system between public agencies might be a better solution for dealing with addictions.

with files from Information Radio and Cameron MacIntosh