Over the years I have received a lot of phone calls about a couple of people who are well-known on the streets of Saskatoon.
Others see them on the streets during the winter months and want "someone" to help them – that someone always being emergency shelter providers. The problem is that while these individuals want a place to live, they both are slaves to their addictions.
If you ask either one what they want to do, it’s to drink. Nothing else. There is no life separate from their next drink. Their desire for alcohol overwhelms even the ability to maintain personal hygiene or go to the washroom.
In the summer, my compassion for either one isn’t that high. A poor lifestyle decision means sometimes sleeping along the riverbank, but as the weather cools, that decision can lead to death. I have made many emergency calls over the years because of their alcohol or drug use. The cost of ambulance rides alone is significant, not to mention the repeated health-care costs.
But these two aren’t unique. Countless people with whom I have talked needed help, but would rather live on the streets than give up alcohol or drugs. The addiction has a bigger hold on them than their need for survival.
Life becomes a day-to-day existence.
Historically, we have simply waited for such people to hit rock bottom. The problem is, when life is so bad to begin with, there isn’t a big gap between doing great and reaching rock bottom. For many, the best life has been is time spent in prison or in a halfway house.
While to you and me the idea of spending the night outside might seem horrendous, for them it’s been such a part of their lives that it doesn’t even register as unusual.
Toronto has taken a different approach to dealing with such people. Seaton House, one of Canada’s largest homeless shelters, opened a "wet shelter" in 1997 where alcohol could be managed. In the past, shelters such as Seaton House forced people to be dry and sober before they came in.
While some did sober up, others found their addiction was too strong and went off in all sorts of weather to get their next fix. A relapse wasn’t just one beer but many, and often they would use a variety of substances such as mouth wash, rubbing alcohol, glue, gas, or even cleaners.
The chemical dependency makes it impossible for hard-core alcoholics to dry out, so the idea is to try to take them off it slowly. At Seaton House a drink is given every 90 minutes (five ounces of wine or three oz. of sherry) until the person can’t go on, or until he falls asleep. They are weaned off the alcohol over time. When the physical dependence is broken, more traditional approaches to treating the addiction can be undertaken.
A 2006 study reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that a managed alcohol program reduces consumption.
Participants went to having eight drinks a day from 48 drinks. Police and hospital usage dropped, as well. The study figures it saved the system about $450 a month for each person.
While such numbers are difficult to quantify, it is important because it means more police available to fight crime and more hospital beds available for other patients. When you factor in the extremes of Saskatchewan weather, the savings could be potentially more.
Drug and alcohol abuse is not rational. No one wakes up hoping to drink a dangerous amount of moonshine or cleaner, yet it happens too often. They end up in emergency rooms or the police cells night after night.
On nights where there isn’t anyone around or something goes wrong, we hear about it the next morning and wait to see if the family releases the name.
Managed alcohol programs, such as Seaton House’s, provide a safe way to deal with chronic alcoholism and start the process toward allowing residents to finally deal with the issues that have dominated their lives. But critics have called similar programs "bunks for drunks" and see them as enabling alcoholism.
However, alcohol doesn’t need an enabler. When you are at the point where your desire for alcohol overwhelms your ability even to take basic care of yourself, a different approach is needed. It may not be one that we are comfortable with, but it’s better than having someone freeze to death.
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