Cover photo: Justice Minister Cliff Cullen answers media questions at City Hall in December 19. A provincial delegation was not able to travel north for the announcement due to COVID-19 precautions.
On Monday, June 8, 2020, the Province of Manitoba announced a major step towards improving public safety and addressing addictions in northern Manitoba. Minister Cliff Cullen announced $2.8 million to establish and run a sobering center in Thompson, a critical piece towards a full-fledged Main Street North initiative.
The sobering center will be a 24-hour facility where severely-intoxicated individuals can take shelter while the effects of alcohol wear off. Individuals will each have their own room, and will be monitored at regular intervals for complications related to withdrawal.
SAFER SOBERING, FEWER ARRESTS
“The City of Thompson’s Sobering Center project will be an invaluable and non-criminal means of providing a safe and secure location for vulnerable people. This project will help alleviate significant policing resources in the City of Thompson, and enable us to redirect them towards other national, provincial, and local policing priorities.”Staff Sgt. Chris Hastie, Thompson RCMP
The first immediate benefit of a sobering center is to reduce the number of police interventions with intoxicated individuals, and to reduce the burden on Thompson’s holding cells.
Individuals in Thompson were held under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act (more commonly known as the drunk tank) over 2000 times in 2019. Not only do these detentions take up significant RCMP time and resources to process, but it also makes it difficult for staff and cell guards to properly monitor the people who are being lodged.
A dedicated sobering center reduces the burden on RCMP facilities and officers, leaving them free to address criminal issues like violence and drug trafficking more effectively. Those lodging at the sobering center benefit from more personal space, security from more aggressive residents in holding, the opportunity to stay longer at the sobering center, and more frequent, attentive supervision including detailed check-ins every 15 minutes. Alcohol is one of the few intoxicants where withdrawal can be fatal, depending on the level of dependence.
“We have access to a non-medical withdrawal unit in Thompson, but people who present a risk to themselves or others need safe lodging, with supervision and security, to detoxify before they enter the withdrawal unit.”Gisele M. deMeulles, Northern Director, Addictions Foundation of Manitoba
A WAY TO A BETTER LIFE: FIRST STEPS TO MAIN STREET NORTH
Dedicated sobering centers create an opportunity for one-on-one interactions and counseling for those sobering up at the facility. They create a hub where users can be directed towards further treatment options like withdrawal units and long-term counseling and recovery.
A sobering center alone still only provides short-term shelter for residents lodged at the facility, but it’s an important first step towards a holistic program like Winnipeg’s Main Street Project. The Main Street Project provides local outreach programs, counseling, addictions services, and supportive/transitional housing programs either within the same facility, or as part of the same organization. This streamlines the recovery process for clients by reducing barriers due to bureaucracy, poor information, and geography.
The Main Street North project would also help ensure programs were culturally relevant to individuals seeking treatment and recovery, including western and Indigenous frameworks in the north.
“My 40 plus years in Thompson have shown me the need for a sobering center where individuals can be assessed, housed, referred and treated humanely through a safe and medically-supervised sobering process. Staff that recognize mental health issues, investigate referrals to addictions services and assist with health needs and family contact are all a part of an effective sobering center.”John Donovan, Former Director, Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, Northern Region, Current Community Advisory Board on Homelessness Member
Projects like Main Street, and in the future Main Street North, provide services based on a housing-first approach. Housing-first approaches recognize that safe, reliable shelter is a foundational part of recovery, and aims to provide housing before other interventions like addictions counselling and employment support (though these services are always provided in conjunction with transitional shelter).
Over the last ten years, studies from across urban centers in Canada have demonstrated the success of housing-first approaches in successful recovery, including Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto, Moncton, and Montreal (which was the focus of a landmark study that ended in 2013). and the model continues to develop best practices to implement across the country.
“A project like this needs collaboration and commitment from a broad range of service providers in the community to succeed, Sobering centers engage people ‘where they are at’. Sobering centers offer a place where people can find safety and connection to services that speak to their specific social and cultural needs, including housing.”C. LeeAnne Deegan, Community Advisory Board on Homelessness Chair; Instructor, University of Manitoba Northern Social Work Program
MANAGED ALCOHOL PROGRAMS
“Managed alcohol programs are a harm reduction approach for people living with severe alcohol dependence. The benefits can include decreasing the beverage alcohol consumed per day, increased quality of life, reduced alcohol-related harm, fewer police interactions, and fewer visits to hospital emergency departments, all which can reduce costs related to alcohol borne by public services.”Paulette Simkins, Executive Director, Canadian Mental Health Association Thompson
Managed Alcohol Programs take a harm-reduction approach to addressing alcoholism. Where some individuals show exceptional difficulty maintaining abstinence and detoxing, a managed alcohol program can help these individuals focus on developing social function while receiving a controlled amount of alcohol during their treatment, somewhat similar to the controlled recovery from prescription medication. In the meantime, the harm associated from alcohol use is reduced through supervision and counselling. This allows an individual to address the stressors in their life and environment.
Managed alcohol is still a controversial approach, and much research still needs to be done. It is also not for everyone, and existing programs typically restrict its use to the most severe cases of alcohol dependency, with very specific eligibility requirements.
A managed alcohol program is not a guaranteed part of the Main Street North project, and requires more extensive community consultation to ensure such a program will work within our community. However, partners in Main Street North project are investigating all potential avenues for addressing alcoholism in Thompson and northern Manitoba.