Montreal is getting a shelter where alcoholics aren't turned away

Montreal will soon have a shelter where alcoholics living on the streets will be able to consume alcohol in a managed way, meeting a longstanding demand of advocates for the city's homeless.

Homeless people will be able to consume alcohol in managed way, gaining place to access care, advocates say

Wet shelters, for homeless people with alcohol abuse problems, already exist in Ottawa and Toronto and have proven successful in helping them manage their alcoholism and gain access to longer-term care, proponents say. (CBC)

Montreal will soon have a shelter where alcoholics living on the streets will be able to consume alcohol in a managed way, meeting a longstanding demand of advocates for the city's homeless.

The city will make the announcement on Wednesday as part of a larger strategy to counter homelessness, said Rosannie Filato, the executive committee member in charge of itinerance issues.

"We're going to work as quickly as possible in order to get our first wet shelter, or a pilot project, in place," Filato said in an interview.

"We do know there's a need for wet services," she said, although she specified it's not yet clear whether those services should take the form of a day centre, a night centre or an overnight shelter.

More controlled environment

"It's good news," said David Chapman, the acting director of The Open Door, a drop-in centre near Cabot Square in Montreal. "The sooner the better."

There has been a need for what's known as a "wet shelter" for years, Chapman said. 
Matthew Pearce, the president and CEO of Old Brewery Mission, said a wet shelter will give people addicted to alcohol access to support services. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Matthew Pearce, president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, which offers shelter and other services for the homeless, is also in favour of the idea.

"Alcoholics who are homeless are out spending their day trying to get alcohol in all of its forms. So when they have access to it, they'll binge on it," he said.

"A wet shelter gives them the knowledge they're going to get their alcohol in regular, hourly doses — so the anxiety to get a drink is reduced. It allows them, in a more controlled environment, to rethink their lives and their choices."

Pearce said the regular doses of alcohol, in the form of wine or beer, would be determined by a doctor. The wet shelter's residents would also get access to health care and counselling.

Right now, alcoholics living on the streets have little access to those services because of their reluctance to go to shelters where they're expected to abstain.

"We know it has positive effects," Filato said of the wet shelter concept.

She said the evidence shows where wet services exist, there are fewer police interventions involving homeless people, fewer people end up in shelters in the long term and fewer hospital visits. 

Joint proposal from existing shelters

Filato said the city is already in consultations with regional health authorities and community groups to evaluate the best way to proceed.
The Old Brewery Mission is hoping to acquire the building next door on St-Antoine Street, which once housed Simon's Cameras. The proposal is to tear it down and build a wet shelter, to be managed jointly with another non-profit agency, Accueil Bonneau. (CBC)

Filato would not confirm that there is a proposal in the works. 

However, Pearce said the Old Brewery Mission,  and the nearby Accueil Bonneau already have come up with a joint proposal to open a residence next door to the Mission on St-Antoine Street in Old Montreal.

They hope to acquire the building that used to house Simon's Cameras, which is currently for sale. Its location next door would allow them to make use of the Mission's existing infrastructure.

"We have a cafeteria here. We have a kitchen here. We wouldn't have to invest those kinds of costs," said Pearce. "There's an economy of scale."

Pearce said locating the wet shelter close to the Mission would also short-circuit "not in my backyard" syndrome, making it easier to get the service up and running more quickly.

"It's not a pleasant prospect for most neighbourhoods to consider that there's going to be a wet shelter opening next to them," he said. "That's not an issue here. We think we could do a short cut to the realization of a wet shelter now."

How it works in Ottawa

Wet shelters already exist in Ottawa and Toronto and have proven successful in those places, advocates say.

In Ottawa, the Shepherds of Good Hope Shelter has run a managed-alcohol program for 15 years.

"It started because a lot of clients were not getting the care they needed," said program manager Holly Whidden. "They have a lot of medical or mental health issues going on."

Whidden says clients receive a glass of wine at certain intervals throughout the day. They also meet with nurses, who give them any other medication they're on and put them on a care plan.

She said this type of shelter is a first step toward getting clients to work on longer-term goals and gain more independence. 

With files from Cecilia MacArthur