North

Yellowknife's sobering centre quarantine helped some cut substance use, find housing: report

The 'shelter in place program' was open to 30 willing adults who were homeless and at a high risk of severe complications should they contract the disease.

Program began as an attempt to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 among Yellowknife’s homeless population

The Yellowknife sobering and day shelter on April 17, 2020. From April 3 to May 3, about 29 participants were supposed to remain at the downtown facility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone else who might normally use the shelter wasn't allowed in. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The month-long quarantine of about 29 adults who are homeless at Yellowknife's day shelter and sobering centre did more than protect against COVID-19, it also helped some find housing and curb their alcohol and drug use.

That's according to a final report released Wednesday from the NWT Disabilities Council on its "sheltering in place program," a project that doubled as a managed alcohol program.

The report says that four people left the quarantine sober, while another 21 were consuming less alcohol and no illegal drugs by the end of the 30 days. Seven participants made housing arrangements with friends or family and four moved into the temporary COVID-19 isolation shelter at the former Arnica Inn.

"This was a considerable undertaking for our organization," Denise McKee, the council's executive director, wrote in an email. "It is our hope, that as we move forward, that the important lessons we have learned from this innovative model are not lost." McKee declined CBC's request to an interview to discuss the report.   

How it worked

The program began as an attempt to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 among Yellowknife's homeless population, reads the report. It was open to 30 willing adults who were homeless and at a high risk of severe complications should they contract the disease. 

Denise McKee is executive director of the NWT Disabilities Council. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

From April 3 to May 3, participants were supposed to remain at the sobering centre and day shelter downtown — and no one else was allowed in. 

It meant that others who might use the day shelter and sobering centre for warmth, rest, bathrooms, internet and showers had to find those things elsewhere. 

Those in the program however, had a place to sleep, socialize, do laundry, use the internet and get medical attention. They were also given tailored access to alcohol, tobacco and cannabis through individual plans overseen by a physician.

For some, a dramatic reduction in substance use

During the quarantine, some people dramatically reduced their substance use, according to the final report.

One participant went from drinking more than two litres of vodka a day, to around 385 millilitres a day by the time they left. Another was drinking more than one litre of vodka per day at the start, and by the time they left, was drinking none at all. 

It's unclear whether the participants stayed for all 30 days. The report doesn't say the number of days each participant remained in the program. 

About seven participants reported using illegal drugs before the program and withdrew from drug use during the 30 days. 

What they learned

The council says it learned that flexible, customized plans for alcohol and tobacco use were "critical to supporting wellbeing and improving health of the homeless adults with substance use challenges."

It made other findings as well. More than half the participants said they wouldn't have taken part in the program if they had to sleep alone in a unit. 

The presence of healthcare workers meant that during moments of sobriety, participants could address underlying health problems that led to substance use, such as mental health issues and chronic pain. 

The report also says programming during the day was key. It kept participants motivated and helped build a sense of community.

The day shelter and sobering centre reopened to the public on Monday.

Clarifications

  • The story has been updated to say that the final report doesn't state how many participants stayed for all 30 days of quarantine.
    May 07, 2020 4:25 PM CT

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