A glimpse at Saskatoon’s first shelter for drunk people

BY CHARLES HAMILTON, THE STARPHOENIX NOVEMBER 16, 2013
A glimpse at Saskatoon's first shelter for drunk people

One of the beds is in use at the Lighthouse.

Photograph by: Gord Waldner, The Starphoenix , The Starphoenix

The sun is still up, and Geoff is already so drunk he can barely stand.

Somehow, he’s found his way to Lighthouse Supported Living’s stabilization unit, a place where he can sleep it off. Geoff, who is homeless, has come here every evening for weeks now. It’s the only shelter in the city that will accept him when he’s drunk.

“I’m worse than I usually am. I’m bad,” he says, as he steadies himself on a chair at the front of the room. Behind him, 20 beds are lined up in rows. By midnight, they will likely be filled.

Before this place opened in July, men and women who were drunk or high were often taken to city police detention cells, emergency rooms or the health region’s Brief and Social Detox Unit. In October alone, the new Lighthouse unit drew more than 400 visits.

Police say they’ve seen a 30 per cent reduction in the number of intoxicated arrests coming into their detention unit since the Lighthouse beds opened.

Now, the Lighthouse unit has extended its hours to meet the growing demand.

“I just drink because, for myself, there is no alternative,” Geoff says.

Geoff is interviewed by Liz Wymer, one of two workers who staff the Lighthouse’s 4 p.m. to midnight shift. The staff members are there to make sure he doesn’t need medical attention, that he is not suicidal, and that he will survive the night. As long as they can wake up and go to the bathroom on their own, clients are usually cleared to stay.

On this particular evening, another worker, Sam Tait, calls the mobile crisis unit because Geoff makes a comment about suicide during his interview. A crisis worker will visit Geoff before the evening is over. Until then, Tait and Wymer will keep a special eye on him.

“We’re glad you made it here,” Wymer tells him before Geoff takes off his sweater, shoes and socks and puts them in a bin. His sweater is covered with dirt from slipping on the ice outside. The workers will wash his clothes while he sleeps it off.

The unit is open daily from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., but workers and others who deal with the intoxicated people daily say it would be used if it was open even longer.

“The level of intoxication has really built up from the hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.,” Lesley Prefontaine, who is in charge of the city’s new community support officers, told a meeting earlier this week. The CSOs, who patrol the downtown, Riversdale and Broadway areas, regularly encounter drunk or passed out people.

The old protocol was to take them to the health region’s detox unit or call police. Since the Lighthouse beds opened, Prefontaine and her team have been referring people there instead.

The new extended hours are the direct result of demand for shelter beds that can accept intoxicated people.

“It was used 404 times in October, which is just an unbelievable amount,” said Dee-Ann Mercier, spokeswoman for the shelter. “It’s something that is actually going to save people’s lives.”

The federal government’s Homeless Partnering Strategy program gave the stabilization shelter more than $200,000 for its first year of operations and $198,848 to renovate a permanent space.

The Saskatoon Health Region and the Saskatoon Police Service are also providing some financial support, but Mercier said most of the funding is limited to a oneyear pilot project.

It would be better to keep the Lighthouse unit open 24 hours a day, but it needs permanent funding, she said. “Police are responding to these calls all day, not just at night … There is a big cost to having in 24-hour facility, but it would be worth it.”

Back at the unit, Sam Tait explains that the beds are more than a safe place for drunk people to sleep.

“More than these beds, these guys need compassion,” he says.

“We try to develop a relationship with them over time, so that if you catch them in the right moment, you can get through to them.”

By suppertime, Geoff is ready for a long night’s sleep. He slips into the donated clothes the shelter provides and finds his favourite bed.

“I just went over the edge this afternoon. I just need a place to stabilize. As soon as I stabilize myself, I’ll be better,” he says.

cthamilton@thestarphoenix.com Twitter.com/_chamilton

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