Shelters across the country are taking a closer look at an Ottawa shelter that gives drinks to homeless alcoholics after a study suggested the program is having a positive impact.
Dr. Tiina Podymow envisioned the program after volunteering with chronic alcoholics, including some who drank upwards of 40 drinks per day, including mouthwash.
Two men in the program receive their drinks at an Ottawa shelter.
Participants in the Managed Alcohol Project were given permanent beds in a shelter and, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m, allowed to have one drink of homemade wine or beer per hour, carefully measured out at a dispensary counter.
Now a study published in this week's edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal is raising interest in the program.
Completed by the shelter's medical director, Dr. Jeff Turnbull, the study examined the program's impact on 17 residents. Most had been alcoholics for 35 years before starting the program.
His study found:
Participants who typically drank 46 drinks a day before the program dropped to about eight drinks a day during the program.
The number of emergency room visits fell by 36 per cent.
The number of encounters with police were essentially halved, falling by 51 per cent.
Critics say there's no way to judge how effective the harm-reduction approach is because there's no comparison group in the study, such as people taking part in an abstinence program like Alcoholics Anonymous.
But Turnbull says the aim of the program is not complete abstinence.
"We always try to encourage people to stop drinking but we are realistic," said Turnbull. "These are people who have spent 20 to 30 years on the street and trying to get them to stop alcohol is not possible at this time."
Others question the reasoning behind the program.
"If this works for alcoholism and you can keep your streets cleaner and safer, then what is stopping you from doing it for cocaine addicts or crystal meth people?" asked Brian Venables, with the Salvation Army.
Podymow says she understands the criticism.
"I would totally agree the best treatment is to stop completely. But if the person with the disease isn't going to stop, what else is the plan?" she said.
Tim Hogan says he'd like to give up drinking but doesn't think he's ready.
"I would like to throw that bottle into the Rideau [Canal] and never come back for it, but knowing me I'd throw the bottle in and I'd probably jump in the Rideau to go get it," said Hogan.
The program has been successful for others.
Wendy Cooper and Jimmy Smyth went through the program together and are now both completely dry.
"If it wasn't for the program I seriously say I would've been dead by now," said Cooper.
With a year-long waiting list to get into the program, several shelters in other cities are interested in adopting it.