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Schoolhouse “Wet” Shelter Ends Rare Approach to Alcohol Addiction

Under a harm reduction-inspired approach, residents were permitted to consume alcoholic beverages inside the shelter.

Protesters rally in support of the Schoolhouse shelter yesterday on Yonge Street. Photo by Desmond Cole.

The Schoolhouse Shelter, a 55-bed facility on George Street, is moving away from a special service it once provided to homeless, alcohol-dependent men. For many years, Schoolhouse has functioned as a “wet” shelter, where residents could bring in and consume their own alcohol, and where many resided for long periods of time. A decision yesterday at the Community Recreation and Development Committee approved the site’s transition to a more conventional emergency shelter—a small victory for the former residents and community advocates who feared the facility might close altogether. If city council endorses yesterday’s decision, the new Schoolhouse will operate with 40 beds instead of 55 (the current capacity is cramped, especially as far as washrooms are concerned), and the current alcohol allowance policies will be discontinued.

Until the early 1990s, the policy around alcohol in Toronto shelters was to confiscate it from residents seeking a bed. But as researchers and advocates began urging shelter operators to introduce harm-reduction approaches—approaches that focus more on limiting risky behaviour than on total abstinence—some facilities implemented new rules. Staff at Seaton House, a large shelter in the same Cabbagetown area as Schoolhouse, began labelling and storing alcoholic beverages, returning them to their owners the next morning instead of pouring the drinks down the drain.

Seaton House later expanded this approach to include supervised consumption of alcohol on site, an ongoing initiative where residents are provided a quantity of alcohol each hour. The idea was to keep residents from leaving the shelter and putting themselves at risk to find a drink, and to reduce the consumption of harmful alcohol-based products like hand sanitizer and mouthwash.

Schoolhouse was unique in that residents brought in their own drinks and paid a $7 per night fee to stay at the shelter. In an interview, a former resident named Brian shared his memories of the “camaraderie” he shared with other men, most of whom would wake up early every morning to line up for manual labour jobs at local temp agencies. “The great part was that we could come back after work, and we could have a few beers,” Brian told us during a breakfast and rally hosted by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. “You had a little more say in how the place was run…we helped each other out more. In the bigger hostels, you’re just another person.”

Of course, not everyone approves of the provisions at Schoolhouse and other harm-reduction facilities. Many fear the approach merely gave residents a place to maintain their alcohol addiction without providing tools to overcome it. Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy summarized this concern in a column earlier this year: “While I’m not at all a fan of harm reduction programs, at least the Seaton House Annex, which also allows its clients to drink, helps them use alcohol safely or tries to get them off the bottle.”

But Geitan Heroux, a longtime support worker and activist, insists that, “we know that this kind of shelter, where men are allowed to drink inside, actually saves lives.” Addressing the crowd at yesterday’s rally, Heroux reminded people that, “in the winter of 1996, we had three men freeze to death on these streets.” An inquest into those alcohol-related deaths recommended a wet shelter as one way to keep alcohol-dependent people from putting their lives at risk.

David Reycraft, the director of housing and homeless services at Dixon Hall, which currently runs Schooolhouse, says their openness to harm-reduction approaches has spread across the city. “I think that the flexibility of the shelter system has increased over the last few years,” he told us in an interview at City Hall. “We have a broader harm-reduction approach to men and women dealing with addictions,” said Reycraft, adding that Toronto shelters have curbed the practice of turning away intoxicated people seeking a bed.

Many of the Schoolhouse residents remained in the facility for two or three years at a time, and must now find another place to live as they deal with addiction issues. (Since the shelter is shifting from a transitional to an emergency shelter, many current residents will not be able to stay.) Reycraft told us the process of moving current Schoolhouse residents to permanent housing is ongoing. But he stressed that “we also need to be talking more about support and supportive housing…we know that the men that we’ve housed are successful, and we want to continue working with them.”

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