DTES program teaches severe alcoholics to make their own alcohol, as a safe alternative

A Downtown Eastside program is aiming to help severe alcoholics take better care of themselves.

There are currently 90 participants in the Portland Hotel Society’s Alcohol Making Co-op. They form groups and for ten dollars they get all the ingredients to make beer or wine, and then they can take home up to five litres.

The members  are all alcoholics, and most have spent their life drinking far worse.

“We’re trying to get them to come inside and try not to use such dangerous alcohol, to use kind of safer alcohol,” said Mark Townsend, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society.

He said many participants are used to drinking hand sanitizer, hairspray and mouthwash.

“Here in the centre we have what we call a ‘Drinkers’ Lounge’,” Townsend added. “To be eligible for any of the programs you have to be a member of the Drinkers’ Lounge, so that means that you attend once a week, and there’s [an] educational part of that and sharing of information, and part of it’s community, bringing people together that are kind of the lowest of the low on the streets and in the parks of this neighbourhood.”
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“From that flows the ability to put some money in, with some of your friends there, and to brew your own alcohol, as a way of trying to wean yourself off of less safe alcohol.”

One of the participants, Rachel Eck, has fetal alcohol syndrome. To participate in the program, she and others have to attend weekly meetings to learn about their health and treatment options.

“I’m here to help our neighbourhood, our families, just to try and lead a healthy life without the rubbing alcohol,” she said.

“We just try and help out the struggling alcoholics out there.”

In the past the Portland Hotel Society has faced accusations of enabling addicts through its safe-injection site and crack-pipe vending machines.

But founders say the alcohol co-op is about harm reduction.

“I think what’s hard for people to understand, they only see one half of these things,” said Townsend. “You have to remember that this Drinkers’ Lounge or alcohol-maintenance program, is part of a continuum of things that we do for detox and treatment.”

“What we try and do is the best we can do, facing the issues that we face.”

Another part of the program involves getting participants to go out on to the streets and check on others in the community, giving them fluids and trying to convince them to come inside where it is warm and dry.

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“Well we have a set route, we go to where there’s quite often people who are maybe getting intoxicated with drinking,” said program participant, Patrick Mabee. “Because if you get to drinking those liquids you get dehydrated.”

“So we try to give them cold water, and sometimes we have, mostly just water, but today we have hot chocolate because it’s cold out.”

“We get swarmed by lots of people, sometimes we only make it a couple blocks before we’re empty,” he added.

Mabee said in the winter, the program is needed more than ever because most of the fountains in the area are shut off, so the residents cannot get water from there.

“And even in the winter, a lot of people ask for water, partly for themselves and partly for their dog,” he said.

Townsend said he knows this program is not solving the bigger problem of alcoholism in the DTES, but it is a place to start.

“That is a very complicated problem to solve,” he said. “We wish we could solve that problem. We’re involved in detox and treatment, we encourage people to go to detox and treatment, but in the meantime we want people to be that little bit safer. And this is a very complex problem. It’s not something that affects a lot of people, but in our community it affects a number of people that we want to take care of, we want to try and make them feel safer and more at home.”

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– With files from Tanya Beja

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