Main Street Project to offer managed alcohol program to treat chronic abuse

Winnipeg's Main Street Project is joining a growing number of shelters nationwide in offering chronic alcoholics with regular drinks throughout the day to help them avoid binge drinking.

Managed alcohol programs have started across Canada, helping chronic addicts lead healthier lives

Main Street Project hopes to begin a pilot program soon, offering chronic alcoholics a safe drink and safe place to stay. (CBC)

Winnipeg's Main Street Project is joining a growing number of shelters nationwide in offering chronic alcoholics regular drinks throughout the day to help them avoid binge drinking. 

Unlike many shelters in Winnipeg, Main Street Project has always been open to intoxicated people, but you couldn't actually consume alcohol there. 

The centre also has a residential component, to help former shelter users transition back into the community. That's where the pilot program will begin. Executive director Rick Lees says a number of chronic users currently live in the Mainstay transitional housing, and will be the first to experience the program in the coming weeks. 

"We do want to start with some of our more chronic users, and those whose health is currently threatened by the manner they consume alcohol. And we think that this will enable them to both live longer, and healthier, and take strains off the system today in terms of how they use alcohol," Lees told CBC's Radio Noon on Thursday.

Those strains include liver failure and diabetes, which can be aggravated by binge drinking or consuming dangerous types of alcohol, such as solvents. 

It's dangerous for long-time alcoholics to quit, even life-threatening, he notes. 

Rick Lees stands near the Intoxicated Persons Attention Area at Main Street Project. (Erin Brohman/CBC)
"If you've used these drugs for 20, 25 years, it would be completely unsafe just to stop cold turkey," he said. "And yet every day these folks get up and go out and try to find means to obtain this, so that they can just feel normal. 

"So this about helping people stabilize, in the context of their normal. And not have the need to go out and do some of the things they need to do, just to live each day." 

The specific number and size of drinks per day will depend on the person, he said. 

It's far from a first in Canada, with managed-alcohol programs in place in Vancouver, Edmonton, HamiltonThunder Bay, Kenora, even a program in Ottawa that caught the attention of Australian researchers.

Shelter House Thunder Bay has seen clients' contact with police go down since their managed alcohol program was introduced, says executive director Michelle Jordan. 

She told CBC'S Up To Speed the shelter has a separate building for the program, which has 15 beds for communal living. Residents get six ounces of wine — made in a local home-brew store — every 90 minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. 

They especially focus on clients who were using hairspray, Lysol or other solvents, she said, because the health risks from those intoxicants can be so much higher. 

Michelle Jordan, executive director of Shelter House, says the managed alcohol program has had a strong positive effect on clients and the community. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)
"We've seen health benefits, social benefits, our clients have gone back to their family members and created better relationships with them, they are better accepted in the community," Jordan said, adding they go together to visit festivals and community events. "They can be a part of general living, just like everybody else." 

While they help clients transition out of the program and get clean, if they don't want to get sober, that's OK too, she said. 

"I don't think one model works for everybody, and I think that we have to start thinking that way, instead of thinking that one way will work for everyone. We know in health care, we know in crime prevention, we have to think outside the box. And I think addiction is just the same thing — we have to think [of] different ways, because it doesn't work for everyone." 

While there will always be people skeptical of the program, she says they're invited to come down and see firsthand how a harm-reduction approach can make people safer and help them manage their lives. 

"It's beneficial for everybody," she said. 

Lees says if the program is a success, they may extend it beyond the transitional housing program. 

With files from Radio Noon, Up To Speed