Wet shelter opens in Montreal so alcoholics without homes can get help

Known as a “wet shelter,” the new service opened this spring. It was established by the Old Brewery Mission in partnership with the regional health authority. To get into this one, users must meet specific criteria, like having failed treatment for alcohol addiction.

Shelter provides about 1 beer per hour so participants can direct attention away from booze

An Old Brewery Mission 'wet shelter' participant accepts his one drink per hour on Wednesday in Montreal. (CBC)

When staff at Montreal's Old Brewery Mission crack open a cold can of beer and pour it into a glass, Stéphane Lapointe knows it will be his last drink for at least an hour.

"All my thoughts were to find money to drink more, but now I don't need to do that anymore," he said.

Lapointe is one of three participants enrolled in the new supervised alcohol consumption service provided by the shelter.

Known as a "wet shelter," the new service opened about six weeks ago. It was established by the mission in partnership with the regional health authority. To get into this one, users must meet specific criteria, like having a history of failed treatment for alcohol addiction.

Co-ordinator Letisha Grenier said alcoholism is not an addiction to take lightly.

"It's something to make yourself feel better no matter what kind of drug it is, whether it's cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, it's all the same thing," said Grenier.

"The difference is that alcohol is the most dangerous drug for the withdrawal symptoms. You can die from withdrawal."

The mission is aiming to provide the service to 30 participants at a time. The hope is that by offering a safe, predictable way to manage the participants' needs, they'll have more time and energy to improve their lives in other ways with the support services provided by mission staff.

Old Brewery's president and CEO, James Hughes, said many people experiencing homelessness have medical issues and alcoholism is one of them.

"We see it all the time in the shelter system, not just here at the Old Brewery but all the other facilities as well," he said. "Alcoholism is a very, very dangerous medical condition."

The mission and homeless advocates have been pushing for a wet shelter for years, saying too many people get turned away from shelters because they consume drugs or alcohol.

A man is seen in a head-and-shoulders shot.
Old Brewery’s president and CEO, James Hughes, says alcoholism is a serious medical condition and the wet shelter can help people get their drinking under control. (CBC)

The wet shelter provides a limited amount of alcohol at a time, preventing participants from binge drinking and easing them into a routine that doesn't involve large amounts of alcohol all the time. Hughes said for some it may take weeks or months to get to a better place, but it's possible to quickly see the results as participants pull away from heavy drinking.

"Skin colour is already changing," said Hughes. "It's just wonderful to see and we hope that we can offer that to literally dozens if not hundreds of people over the years ahead."

Quebec is the sixth province to offer a supervised consumption service like this, said Hughes. This kind of shelter already exists in Ottawa and Toronto.

The Quebec and Montreal governments announced in 2019 that they would invest $5.45 million into resources for homeless people, and that included a promise to open the city's first wet shelter.

The majority of that funding ⁠— $3 million in all⁠ ⁠— was earmarked for establishing a wet shelter. It was originally slated to open in the spring of 2020. Hughes said the pandemic led to delays as the space originally selected for the project was shut down by public health restrictions.

The program is starting small with men only for the time being and "so far so good," said Hughes. Eventually, the hope is to offer the service to women as well, helping any participant to break their obsession with alcohol and begin rebuilding their lives, he said.

Joining the program is completely voluntary, he said, and participants are "people who really want to get better, but can't do it alone."

with files from Simon Nakonechny


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