Early results suggest “Drinkers Lounge” for alcoholics delivering much-needed help

One year after the launch of a harm-reduction program for drinkers, organizers say it's providing assistance to an overlooked group of addicts.

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      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.”

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      Interesting Choices

      May 14, 2014 at 5:42pm

      It's interesting how in BC we spend very little on children born in poverty---only once they've grown into drug addicted walking corpses will we spend money on them. I guess it's only at that point that the money can be channeled toward people like the PSH staff or something.

      Share the wealth

      May 15, 2014 at 1:28am

      1 year living in the DTES and the greatest travesty I am reminded of daily while I make my rounds is there too much physical and mental pain being suffered needlessly due appropriate resources not being made available.

      All people deserve:

      to be housed, have a place that is safe and secure with a private washroom and cooking facilities.

      access to healthy food.

      medical/dental care, both general and advanced.

      to be able to obtain quality drugs (and when ready quality help centres ready to jump in when needed) which should all be legal - How is this not already so?

      I find it unbelievable, but glaringly true that due to some random trials and tribulations of navigating life some end up with no resources while a few others have the lion's share - Who appointed "those people" guardians of Mother Earth's resources? The possible fact that "they" were smarter or faster or just plain luckier than those without, doesn't excuse the logic that it isn't right to have suffering, when someone else could easily eliminate it simply by sharing.

      Give back what you don't need and let's help someone get productive and on the road to a healthy life overall!!


      @Share the wealth

      May 15, 2014 at 1:44pm

      I agree, it is a travesty that there is not good quality _________ sold in the pharmacies. Good quality _________ has fixed many a wayward young person! Just ask the Dead!

      Rick in Richmond

      May 15, 2014 at 3:04pm

      This simply does not go far enough.

      We must also provide free tobacco to people with emphysema and lung cancer. And free chocolate to diabetics. It's the only possible way to help them.

      @ Rick in Richmond

      May 15, 2014 at 9:06pm

      Why don't you alliterate further and add "Reductionist" to your moniker?
      Or you could call yourself Groundless Goof in Garden City.
      Perhaps you aren't completely off-base in your tobacco comparison, as nicotine is an addiction. But are you talking about severe nicotine addicts, or people with emphysema and lung cancer? Further, if nicotine addicts can't find/afford tobacco, they don't smoke illicit or non-smokeable materials, as some severe alcoholics drink illicit or non-beverage alcohol.
      Comparing alcoholism to diabetes in this context is utterly foolish.
      Hope you're having fun on your computer down there, you ignorant man.
      Yeah, let's settle on calling you Ignorick!

      If you take part in a broken system by taking advantage of people...

      May 16, 2014 at 7:07pm

      ...you know, so the mortgage gets paid on time, you 'earn' whatever money in trade for your genius money making skills. The more 'gifted' you are, normally the more rewarded you are.

      You can then feed whatever addiction you might have with quality products. While those same quality products may very well be capable of ending your life, at least you wouldn't have ingested the hog de-wormer (or any number 'of other harsh chemicals) that the 'down and out' have to struggle with daily.

      They fact is they don't have the resources to pay for quality drugs/alcohol due reasons like: they may not be as 'gifted' as some to take advantage of others...ummm, like me - 1 year living the dream :-) or perhaps they were like most people, but joined XYZ co. rather than the ABC co. and their company down-sized because the other company was more 'gifted'.

      I see that person arrive in the DTES and within a short few months their faces can be full of sores, why? The crap they inject (trying to lessen the pain they perceive) has particles mixed within that serve to stretch the dealers overall supply (a.k.a. cutting their stash=make mo' money). The foreign particles now make their way through the blood stream get caught in a smaller vein and proceed to find its way through the skin. The face and forearms have very thin layers of skin and this is where the immune system directs these particles to go. To the person it feels like bugs crawling under their skin and the endless scratching begins, the sores never get a chance to heal, etc...

      Like medicinal weed, if a person is of need and weed helps, would another person deny them relief? We all have our personal journeys to navigate through this thing we call life and if along that timeline something happens to you that introduces drugs/alcohol, you should at the very least, have access to quality, no matter what end of the monetary scale you find yourself on.

      Help should be readily available and the never-ending education of our young ones, who may still make the choice to drink too much or worse, however, I have much faith in Mother Nature to help us along!

      Let's start with LOVE for one another. Come on down to our neighborhood, there is lots of LOVE down here, ask Tommy at main/hastings how much LOVE we have. Get to know some of the peoples' stories and see if you have trouble empathizing with another amazing fellow human.