The city now has a wet shelter with a managed alcohol program
“With controlled distribution of alcohol and no access to illegal drugs, the people we support are telling us how they feel healthier than they have in years.”
— Alannis McKee, of the NWT Disabilities Council, to NNSL
Providing alcohol to alcoholics may seem counter-intuitive. However, harm-reduction is a longstanding tool to help combat addictions — consider methadone maintenance programs, safe injection sites and needle exchanges.
Prodded by some advocates, the GNWT has long been toying with the idea of setting up a managed alcohol program in the city. But until now, it either hasn’t had the opportunity, the location, or the political fortitude to institute such a controversial program.
The positive effects of wet shelters for the community as a whole and on the chronically homeless lifetime alcoholics in the program include:
- lower levels of consumption (and safer, as opposed to non-beverage alcohol such as mouthwash);
- fewer run-ins with the law and a lower number of trips to the emergency room;
- higher levels of happiness and quality of life as they no longer worry about where the next drink will come from;
- fewer instances of violence;
- improved sleep and healthier weight;
- other health concerns being addressed; and
- it can be a first step for many to join longer-term recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
In 2016, a Yellowknife emergency room doctor told CBC when the alcoholism is essentially “under control,” physicians can begin to look at the patient’s other health issues.
“For some reason we always insist that addiction has to be the first thing, and sometimes the only thing, that we manage before we can get to the mental health issues, before we can get to the physical issues,” said David Pontin, who had worked in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. “Managed alcohol programs, what I think their strength is, is that they say, ‘Hey listen, we see where you are with your alcohol use, we understand this is a dangerous addiction, but we’ll put that aside for now. We’ll help you with that part of your addiction when the time comes, but let’s get you housed, let’s deal with your psychiatric issues, your depression, your anxiety.’
“I think that is a very sane and very compassionate approach to alcohol problems.”
The Report on Homelessness Working Group October 2016 stated: “There is considerable evidence that harm reduction programs can have positive health effects for individuals suffering from severe addiction issues. In Yellowknife’s context, the primary addiction of the homeless population is alcohol, creating violent behaviour and many health-related issues that put the homeless at significant risk. The Working Group is recommending the establishment of a harm reduction pilot project … specifically, a managed alcohol program. The Working Group strongly believes that the GNWT’s Department of Health and Social Services should undertake an assessment on what a managed alcohol program would look like in Yellowknife, and consider launching a pilot project.”
In October 2016, then health minister Glen Abernethy said he’s prepared to consider managed alcohol programs, with sobering centre — then two years away from opening — where a managed alcohol program would fit best.
He was backed by several city MLAs, including Yellowknife Centre’s MLA Julie Green.
There have also been continued calls for an addictions rehab centre in the NWT, instead of continually shipping those seeking recovery down south.
So, under the cover of COVID-19 — where government has taken over every aspect of our lives — a 30-day managed alcohol program test-run has been set up, creating a situation that looks remarkably like a rehab centre.
The Day Shelter/Sobering Centre on 50 Street was announced at the start of April to be home to 30 homeless adults. And I say that’s a good plan. But it wasn’t perfectly executed, as advocates who normally wold have supported such a move are now decrying it, as it has left a handful of homeless people with a patchwork of supports.
Facility operator NWT Disabilities Council originally stated the 30 people had agreed to not leave the site and that the building will be closed to anyone else. The stated reason was to “ensure that they are not exposed” to COVID-19. The council did not state it would be providing alcohol to its clients.
That was only revealed, in passing, in an April 7 CBC North story on the backlash to the closing of the centre from those homeless people who now find themselves with fewer options for shelter. Other media have now reported about it, without much background.
The Salvation Army and Yellowknife Women’s Society — and the RCMP, with its drunk tank — is attempting to fill the gap in services.
But that patchwork of services was exactly why the Day Shelter/Sobering Centre was set up in the first place in 2018.
The actual number of people above the 30 being sheltered in the managed alcohol program who are homeless and in need of help on a daily basis isn’t really known. One 2018 count indicated there were 338 homeless people in the city. But It’s unclear how “homeless” those people are — as opposed to those couch-surfing or otherwise in unstable situations — and if that number has changed. There certainly aren’t hundreds of people wandering the streets at this time.
It’s clear by just driving around downtown that there are far fewer folks hanging out and drinking or panhandling. But there still are a few regulars, asking for change in front of the remaining open businesses.
Of course, the fact the GNWT is releasing some prisoners early over concerns that COVID-19 might enter the North Slave Correctional Complex won’t help — I note flights to many smaller communities have been cut off — unless there are guarantees they have homes to be released to. But I digress.
Having 30 homeless people off the streets is in itself a positive step for the city. And we could enjoy the hassle-free strolls through downtown if we all weren’t sheltering in place over the potential for spread of the coronavirus.
Booze abuse has become a hot target for community leaders across the NWT during the novel coronavirus threat — with some calling for outright bans on sales.
On April 4, the Dene Nation called for immediate restrictions to liquor and cannabis availability.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said 28 chiefs across the North voted unanimously in support of a motion calling on Premier Caroline Cochrane to immediately create a working group to tackle the issue. It would draft plans to restrict liquor consumption as well as limiting store hours.
The GNWT has kept its six liquor stores open throughout the pandemic to date, but with reduced hours and incorporating physical distancing measures. This week, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said she would not be further restricting liquor sales. Good. This is not the time to restrict the little bit of fun — and emotional relief — alcohol and weed offer to those who use the substances properly.
Yakeleya, himself a self-admitted recovering alcoholic, is trying himself to use COVID-19 as a cover for some social engineering he and other Indigenous leaders should have been doing all along.
“We are looking at unique programs … treatment programs on the land,” Yakeleya said in a telephone news conference one week ago. “It’s new, it’s unprecedented. We are not asking for structured buildings, we have our counsellors already in the community. They are the Elders, grandmothers and grandfathers, and medicine people, spiritual people. We have them waiting to ask for help.”
“We cannot wait until Sunday or Monday, we have to do it now. We’ve got to know that this is how serious it is and that the chiefs … the voice of the Dene have spoken.”
But why all this focus on booze now? Alcoholism has been a scourge across the territory for decades. It is at the root of almost all crime, almost all domestic breakdown and almost all unemployment.
Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said in a Facebook post residents were still “not getting the message” about COVID-19. “I am going to be lobbying very hard to see that there are liquor restrictions.”
But are house parties during the lockdown really the problem?
At the time of this writing, there is still no community spread of the virus. And it doesn’t appear magically under the melting snow.
Now I have no problem with leaders doing what they can to direct their people to healthier lifestyles. I just think it’s a bit sneaky to do it under the guise of protecting us from COVID-19 and to call on a prohibition-style liquor sales ban that would make everyone suffer.
I was pleased to hear Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek telling Cabin Radio there could be no “one size fits all” solution for the territory.
“I think there are ways individual communities can have restrictions put in place. Every individual liquor store can have different restrictions in place, it doesn’t have to be a territory-wide solution,” said Wawzonek.
“That is where I think I’m going to have to go with this, because there’s such a concern within the health profession, within the health bodies, that we not risk taxing them if people wind up in a detox situation.”
Hence, the wet shelter experiment for homeless and severely alcoholic people.
In other jurisdictions that have tried a managed alcohol program in wet shelters, it was found to be a good step into abstinence programs.
Attempting to quit drinking is a big challenge for many — especially for those with lengthy addictions. But a wet shelter allows people to stabilize their consumption, while also receiving proper nutrition and health care as needed. Stabilization means that the homeless alcoholics are going “cold turkey,” but rather can adjust to lowered levels of consumption without suffering withdrawal and seizures.
I hope this experiment at the downtown Day Shelter/Sobering Centre continues past its initial 30-day term. That fact the ne’er-do-wells that have wreaked havoc around the centre since it opened are no longer hanging in and around the place is a godsend for business owners and residents in the area.
With the Arnica Inn now to come online as transitional housing, this is an opportunity for the GNWT to finally move in a positive way in dealing with the homeless and addictions. We can have a wet shelter acting as a first step towards recovery, the problems with the Day Shelter/Sobering Centre solved, and people who are publicly intoxicated taken to the drunk tank where they belong.
Yes, there will be some issues until the Arnica Inn is ready, but the Salvation Army and other existing shelters can step up with help from the city and territory. The GNWT also looking at turning Aspen Apartments into temporary housing for people to self-isolate in.
We need to see what effect the 30-day isolation had on the people in the shelter. The big question will be if there are proper supports in place for those who are ready to try a new, sober life. And since this COVID-19 scare will still be here in May, will there be another intake of 30 people for 30 days?