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Thursday, April 29, 2004

We're giving them WHAT?

At last, the perfect pretext to try out the Standard's TypePad thingy for guest authors. Naturally you were all voracious readers of the Standard's spiritual predecessor, the Report, so you are aware that I wrote an 800-word article about Seaton House when it began serving cheap vino to its clients three or four years ago. (Very, very cheap vino indeed--three dollars a litre, according to the Post. But I won't stand in the way of anyone who wishes to blame the GTA's budget crisis on a few bottles of plonk.) The piece was a purely neutral inquiry into the premises behind the program; lacking evangelical or 12-step principles, I failed utterly to denounce the shelter as a breeding ground for disease and/or demonoids. There were disapproving quotes from experts on the care of the extremely poor.

The fact is that the inebriate homeless who don't want to stop drinking will find a way to consume intoxicants unless you lock 'em up. Locking 'em up may be the right thing to do, but it's not on the legislative menu. The alternatives to alcohol, for street people, are cleansers and solvents: these are not especially good for you. The wine is given to the Seaton House rubbies under supervision and they are limited to one glass per hour: the Toronto council genius who said "after a couple of glasses of wine I get a little light-headed" may just possibly be underestimating the immunity of your average Skid Roader. At the very least, let's separate the cigarettes and the booze here: the latter is provided as a harm-reduction measure, while the former, I suppose, is purely meant to keep the guys hanging around while they receive counselling and steady meals.

Anything that helped set these people on the road to self-sufficiency and stability would be worth a little extra up-front expense. I don't know whether any conclusions are possible yet on whether Seaton House's approach works: it doesn't seem like anyone's interested in that question. But if there is just one homeless shelter that teaches men that they do not necessarily suffer from a "disease", but from poor life choices, I think we can live with that. AA and its mutations, contrary to popular belief, are not the only road to recovery from a drinking problem, and there isn't much solid evidence that they are the best road.

Posted by Colby Cosh on April 29, 2004 in Food and Drink | Permalink


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You're right Colby. There are other paths to recovery. And somebody that low bottom would find AA incomprehensible at first. However, why not concede that they might be suffering from a disease (note the absence of scare quotes) AND poor life choices?

I know too many ex Main & Hastings drunks (and love one in particular) who are now 10+ years sober through AA to dismiss it completely. Even with 12 years in the program, I struggle intellectually with the "disease" model of addiction, as do most members with a college diploma :-). I much prefer Bill Wilson's original "allergy" notion to the "disease" model (the man was known to get carried away) and wish that had caught on instead...

It was actually once common practice for AA members to dole out booze in small doses to newcomers while they were making the transition from drunk to sober, to keep them from flinging themselves out the window. So Seaton House is kinda sorta maybe doing the right thing, but then seems to stop short of saying: Oh, by the way, do you want to stop doing this one day or what?

Believe me, I do not have the Grand Unified Theory of Addiction and Treatment. But the only reason I'm typing a coherent sentence right now is because of AA and I'd hate to see it tossed on the trash heap because it has been so badly co-opted by New Age goofs, stupid movie stars and tone deaf social workers.

Posted by: Kathy Shaidle | 2004-04-29 7:23:57 AM

It doesn't sound like Seaton House is interested in helping anyone recover from anything. It's hosting a continuous party. How about the "second hand smoke affects employees" lie that everyone is using to trample on smokers? Or are the employees joining in the fun? Drinking on the job? Would I be surprised? Why would any hobo or bum ever want to leave Seaton House? The real world doesn't hand you smokes to have a shower. And how much do cigs cost now in Toronto? A hundred dollars a pack? Think of the lost tax money that could be used for useless bureaucracy. Hey, wait a minute. Maybe it is better to use tax money to keep alcoholics drinking and kill smokers off early with lung cancer instead of paying do-nothing bureaucrats. This is surely a right-wing plot to slowly euthanize bums and tramps while starving socialist apparatchiks of funds! Good idea!

Posted by: Robert Speirs | 2004-04-29 7:27:21 AM

Hi Colby, and welcome,

How about a libertarian argument instead? Namely, that if I lived in Toronto, I would object to government paying for something that I would have grave difficulties doing myself, giving free liquor to street people.

"Those who think this is a great idea can spend their own money on the program, not mine."

Posted by: Rick Hiebert | 2004-04-29 9:05:47 AM

Colby: The path to self-sufficiency and stability doesn't go anywhere close to the kind of condescending and insulting program of rationed cigarettes and wine that Seaton House is conducting. I have volunteered at a Main Street soup kitchen in Winnipeg, and served as its secretary/treasurer for three years. Either Seaton House keeps its clients permanently hammered, or anyone with a problem controlling their alcohol consumption gets their appetite whetted for free, and then has to go to the street to get the good buzz they now crave. This is a program designed to drive the homeless into a hole they will never climb out of.

I have seen a sniffing pregnant sex trade worker clean up her act; because she found a place to get away from her addictions, someone to make sure she went to her doctor's appointments, and someone who cared enough to haul her out of a bar when she was stripping for valium. Seaton House sends a clear message that it believes their clients are incapable of redemption, and its supposedly compassionate programs work against any movement towards self-sufficency and self-esteem.

At Siloam Mission, we gave street people food and clothing, because they had spent their money on cigarettes and alcohol. It was their choice to spend their money on something other than groceries, and when they needed help, we provided what we could. We gave them a place to get away from the hopelessness of life on the street. And we treated our clients like people, not weak-willed animals.

Posted by: Rick Glasel | 2004-04-29 7:17:33 PM

I am honestly mystified that letting residents of a shelter choose whether to drink is considered "treating them like animals". Sadly I'm less surprised that someone who works with the homeless in one setting would feel the need to trash a different, explicitly experimental approach on the illogical grounds of his own experience. (X works sometimes, therefore Y can't?)

AA was pretty New Agey from the start--or not New Agey, but certainly what the scholars now call a New Religious Movement. There's certainly a core of common sense there, however, and "cold turkey" is unquestionably the right approach to some people's addictions.

Posted by: Colby Cosh | 2004-04-30 7:08:42 AM

Colby: You've really surprised me by how little you have thought this through. Where is the ethics in an "experimental approach", when every indication is that the experiment is going to not only fail, but do harm to its subjects while it demonstrates its failure. Another thing, economics has a funny effect on skid row drunks. To get to the inebriated state they desire takes less alcohol than you might think, because they need to get the most bang out of their Lysol purchases that they can, because they can afford to blow a lot of money on getting drunk. Not only do they have to find a way to get drunk on no more than $20, but they are paying inflated prices to buy their cup of de-Lysoled alcohol or solvent soaked rags. And to repeat myself, if you give alcoholics a daily ration of wine, you are assuming that they are incapable of helping themselves, which you use to justify bribing them into a program that you believe will provide harm reduction. Well, no one kicks an addiction until they are capable of helping themselves, so why not provide opportunities for self-improvement; instead of enticing them to remain in an enviroment of hopelessness? As far as my "animal" remark goes, I sure wouldn't treat people I considered my equals the way Seaton House is treating their clients.

Posted by: Rick Glasel | 2004-04-30 10:11:36 AM

Great post, Kathy. I, too have friends who have
gone the AA route and have gone on to make good
lives for themselves while helping others who on
on the path.
I think part of the success of AA is the fact they
go on to being the helper, which in turn keeps them aware of how easy it is to slip and provide
them with some the self-esteem they need to overcome alcoholism.

Posted by: Carole | 2004-05-01 5:07:10 PM

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