It’s a counter intuitive solution, supplying alcohol to addicts, but that’s what research from the University of Regina suggests as a method to curb homelessness and addiction.
The study, Harm Reduction Interventions for Chronic and Severe Alcohol Use among Populations Experiencing Homelessness, was released earlier this month and delves into monitored alcohol programs.
“Managed alcohol programs just really provide them the space that is private for them, and it safe for them to consume alcohol, but at the same time not to get overly intoxicated or not to experience withdrawal symptoms,” Gabriela Novotna, an associate professor with the University of Regina’s Faculty of Social Work, and one of the study’s authors said.
“Addiction needs to be treated more like a medical issue, and that’s how managed alcohol programs come into place, to meet people where they’re at without requiring abstinence,” Nicholas Olson, another one of the authors added.
Managed alcohol programs offer a middle ground to the most severe cases; those who turn to non-beverage alcohol, like mouthwash, hand sanitizer and even hairspray.
According to Rochelle Berenyi, Carmichael Outreach’s communications officer, dealing with individuals who consume non-beverage alcohol is something that occurs all too frequently.
“Many individuals who are experiencing homelessness are in very vulnerable positions. Non-beverage alcohol is very accessible and that is all they can afford to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms,” Novotna said.
Managed alcohol programs focus on stabilizing people first, then consider abstinence or managing the addiction.
“Many of these individuals, when they enter managed alcohol programs they already have very serious health conditions. Some of the managed alcohol programs just try to stabilize them and help them to navigate their daily living,” Novotna said.
“We have folks that have been drinking so long that if they were to quit, if they were to take an abstinence program they could literally die from the withdrawal symptoms,” Berenyi added.
According to their study the approach has led to a decrease in hospital visits and fewer interactions with police. Clients using the program also reported improvements in social life, health, safety, and felt a greater sense of control over their lives.
“If we’re able to work with people to be able to create programs that work for them, as opposed to trying to just bring in the people who work with the existing programs then we’re opening the doors to some of those folks who fall through the cracks,” Berenyi smiled.
Novotna and Olson both noted that managed alcohol programs aren’t meant to end the use of abstinence based programs. Rather, they’re unique solutions for those who are most at risk.
“This is an alternative for those who really have chronic and severe alcohol issues for many years. These are individuals who have lived in and out of jails, or shelters, or who have spent a lot of time in emergency rooms and had many contacts with police because of their severe alcohol use and because of their homelessness,” Novotna explained.
They hopes this research will mean more permanent supportive housing options in the city that will include services like managed alcohol programs.
“As a society we hope to find simple solutions for a complex problem, and we have preconceived ideas of how these people should be recovering. We need to open our minds to ways that we haven’t tried before to try to address the situation,” Novotna concluded.