In pilot program, shelter will give alcohol-addicted homeless Montrealers controlled doses to taper off drinking

A three-month pilot program in Montreal will take a new approach to the intertwined problems of alcoholism and homelessness—by offering a small group of people controlled doses of alcohol.

The idea to help them get “from 100 miles an hour down to 15 or 20,” said James Hughes, the CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, which is administering the program jointly with health authorities.

“We have a program that can start to welcome people in, where they’re at, and start the process of slowly taking them from uncontrolled chronic drinking and slowly bringing them down to a controlled form of consumption,” he said.

“They'll overall drink less, but they're going to find themselves again, they’re going to recover.”

The program is new to Montreal, but similar ones have been used in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and other cities, Hughes said.

They are meant for people who “have no control over their alcohol consumption,” frequently binge-drinking, and find themselves without a home and “unable to function,” he said.

The program is also purely voluntary—13 people will participate in Montreal, 10 men and three women, all of whom decided they were ready to try it.

They will be in frequent touch with a care team that will keep them to a “managed alcohol program,” or MAP, designed specially for them.

They will be given small doses of alcohol on an hourly or other regular schedule, in a “space with clinical support,” said Hughes, including a nurse on hand as they come off the effects of overconsumption.

In the longer term, there will be counsellors and others “there to support them as they start to come to grips about what they’re facing and ask they ask those tough questions about where to go from here,” he said.

They’ll get help as they start to work through the idea of finding permanent housing, employment, and maybe mending ties with loved ones.

At a press conference on Wednesday, city health officials said the program was developed after studying the needs of its potential users, and talking to them.

“We hope this will address the needs of the homeless who have not used our services yet,” said Sonia Belanger, CEO of the South-Central CIUSSS.

“This is a clinical program, not an open buffet,” she said.

Unlike some other alcohol addiction programs—most famously, Alcoholics Anonymous—the treatment clearly isn’t based on maintaining abstinence. 

It’s not against it, either, said Hughes. “If they can actually achieve that, that's great,” he said. 

But the main goal is to taper off their drinking to a “controlled level” until they can regain control of other parts of their lives.

In other cities, they found that “having that type of structured approach can really help people renew their sense of who they are and what their potential is,” said Hughes.

The participants are not all clients of the Old Brewery Mission, he said. Instead, they were seeking people across the city with a particular profile: “a danger to themselves, a danger to others, big users of public services like ambulances… and emergency rooms,” he said.

He said he was “very excited” for the three-month pilot and expects it to be made a permanent offering.

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