First emergency 'wet' shelter opens in Montreal for those struggling with alcohol abuse

Finding a place to sleep can be a challenge for unhoused people who struggle with alcohol abuse -- but a new shelter in downtown Montreal hopes to change that.

After a few months of small-scale operation, Montreal's first emergency "wet" shelter was officially unveiled Wednesday.

The shelter allows occupants to drink alcohol under medical supervision, serving as a safe consumption site that provides counselling and support.

"Until now, there was this missing link in Montreal for people using alcohol and experiencing homelessness," said Elaine Polflit, a co-ordinator of the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.

The project is a collaboration between the CIUSSS and the Old Brewery Mission, which provides various resources to Montreal's unhoused population.

Stephane Lapointe, 49, was among those who used the new shelter in the past two months and he said Wednesday the program has made a huge difference.

He said he used to spend his days drinking on the streets, and has even woken up in the hospital a few times.

"I'm a chronic alcoholic -- I used to have trouble walking," he said.

But now, he said, he's cut back on his drinking. "It's going down," he said. "That's my goal."

The shelter is modelled after similar programs in Ontario and Alberta.

"The goal is the same: to reduce consumption and make sure people do it safely," said Laetitia Grenier, co-ordinator with Old Brewery Mission.

Most shelters are "dry," meaning they don't allow alcohol consumption inside -- but this can trigger withdrawal, keeping people away from the resources designed to help them.

"People experiencing homelessness and having an alcohol problem are experiencing a whole host of other problems that stem from their alcohol abuse," said Polflit. "They're in more frequent contact with the SPVM [Montreal police]. They're more likely to be going through the judicial system, being imprisoned."

For Lapointe, the ability to drink in a safe and controlled setting has been a life-changer.

"I have more joie de vivre. I feel better in my skin." 

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