May 8, 2014 7:23 pm

Edmonton contemplating wet house concept

Watch above: A discussion is underway in Edmonton about how to address the issue of alcoholics who are also struggling with homelessness. Vinesh Pratap reports.

EDMONTON – The City of Edmonton is looking into a controversial program known as wet housing, which houses and feeds homeless alcoholics, but also allows them to drink.

The concept already exists in Edmonton with Urban Manor, a men’s dorm-style house where residents buy their own beer but have it doled out by qualified staff every hour to 90 minutes.

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The house ensures residents get food in between drinks to protect them from binging, which often occurs in the homeless community to prevent theft or confiscation. Medical support is in place to ensure residents are taken care of.

“There’s not enough of it, and the demand exceeds the supply,” Jay Freeman from the Edmonton Homeless Commission said. “It currently is only for men, and there are more people that require that type of housing.”

He added, “Their health improves, and their use of emergency services — both health and police — reduces and I think one thing that will surprise people is we find their alcohol use decreases.”

As for the public concern about spending money for this type of housing?

“I would argue if you look at the cost of not doing that, the costs are far higher,” said Freeman. “We looked at one fellow, we’ll call him Steve, over a one year period.

“His system use of police and health care, he consumed $188,000 of services, and the frustrating part is he was still homeless at the end of it.”

Global News spoke with Ben, who has been homeless for six years, “I see so much suffering on the street because of alcohol, that it’s even to the point of abusing substances like Listerine… anything just to get a buzz. I’ve had three friends on the street die from liver failure from substance abuse.”

He thinks that wet houses would help.

“I think it would alleviate, not only the drunks on the street, but I think it would alleviate a lot of health concerns, as well.”

With discussions underway, Global News asked Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht about the idea.

“We want to take a real close look at it to understand what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and how we’re administering it, ” Knecht said Wednesday. “I think the police are a really important part of the discussion.”

“I’ve done some reading on it, talked to some people. There have been some successes and failures.”

Marliss Taylor of Street Works, the city’s needle exchange program, says Boyle Street had previously used a similar approach to help a homeless man. By giving him a drink in the morning, they were able to prevent him from going in to a withdrawal-induced panic, which improved his ability to make decisions.

Taylor added that addiction should be seen as a health matter like diabetes, which would change how managed alcohol programs are seen.

Edmonton City Council began the discussion last month, as the city’s 10-year-plan to end homelessness reached its half way point.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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