Early results suggest “Drinkers Lounge” for alcoholics delivering much-needed help
Roughly a year has passed since the Drug User Resource Centre (DURC) quietly began a quartet of harm-reduction experiments collectively known as the Street Entrenched Managed Alcohol Program (SEMAP). And as far as Kailin See is concerned, the results are in.
“The program is working,” the DURC director said in her office across the street from Oppenheimer Park. “We now have 150 or 160 members, and people are increasingly asking for detox and for treatment.”
SEMAP falls under the umbrella of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), whose operations are being reviewed by B.C. Housing following allegations of financial mismanagement. It consists of four initiatives: at its core is the Drinkers Lounge, where participants consume alcohol together and form an informal support group. There’s the Brew Co-op, where “members in good standing” make their own beverages. And then there is the Alcohol Exchange, where people trade illicit alcohol—like mouthwash or hand sanitizer—for less harmful substances supplied by the Brew Co-op. Finally, there’s the Hydration Team, which delivers nonalcoholic drinks to impoverished people throughout the Downtown Eastside.
“The goals were to engage the homeless drinking population, to improve health, to decrease illicit-alcohol consumption, and to connect them to services that are appropriate,” See said. She maintained that this is happening, to a point where DURC can’t keep up with demand.
“We’re now brewing almost 200 litres of alcohol a week,” See said, adding that support services to which she’s referring participants are also filling up.
Bernie Pauly, an associate professor at the University of Victoria, is leading Canada’s first nationwide study of managed-alcohol programs. The projects she is examining are more structured than SEMAP. Most research participants are homeless, severely addicted to alcohol, provided with accommodation, and administered regulated doses of alcohol throughout the day.
“It’s very much harm reduction,” Pauly told the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview. She explained that the existing academic literature on managed-alcohol programs indicates participants consume less harmful forms of alcohol, encounter fewer negative health effects than they would with unregulated drinking, and register declines in contacts with police and emergency services.
Pauly pointed to a December 2013 UVic report on a managed-alcohol program in downtown Vancouver. (DURC’s is notable for its Brew Co-op, but it’s far from the first program of its kind in B.C.) That document notes that further study is needed but states: “Housing and harm reduction objectives appear to have been met in relation to reducing acute social and health-related problems.”
In a telephone interview, former PHS manager Mark Townsend recalled SEMAP’s founding as rooted in common sense.
“There are people all across North America that drink all kinds of weird stuff like hand sanitizer, aftershave, or hairspray,” he told the Straight. “We saw them in the park there, at Oppenheimer. We worried about them, and we wanted to try and bring them inside. So now we have a program called the Drinkers Lounge, where we invited those people to come in.”
Townsend said he hears that people are worried managed alcohol is the kind of experimental program that the new PHS management team might eliminate. (B.C. housing minister Rich Coleman has said that some PHS activities will be curtailed as staff work to ensure sustainability.) However, Townsend said he hasn’t seen any evidence SEMAP will be cut, before adding, “But it is something we worry about.”
Vancouver Coastal Health, which is overseeing PHS activities during a period of review, was not able to grant an interview by deadline.
Update: In an email to the Straight, PHS spokesperson Michelle Perrault wrote that the organization's interim board has “no plans to restructure at this time,” but also, that “no decisions have been made and further consultation is required”.
See conceded that despite SEMAP’s success, she’s one of those people worried the drinkers’ program could be cut as PHS reviews operations. She emphasized the extent to which severe alcoholics are underserved by social-service providers.
“A lot of detoxes won’t take them because detoxing a drinker is very complicated,” See explained. “We need more housing specific to drinkers and we need more detox specific to drinkers.”