Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

BOTTLE SERVICE: Why a “wet shelter” makes sense for downtown homeless

Read more articles by

1811 Eastlake in Seattle was the first in North America to set up a home where chronic alcoholics could continue to drink without being kicked out. Photo by Dorota Strzelecka.


Originally published in the winter 2014 issue of The Yards. Written by Scott McKeen.

Mental illness is not a crime. Not a moral failing. Not the result of weak character, cowardice or lazy streak. Not a teary fiction foisted upon society by sissy liberals.

That’s why I’ve made mental illness my city councillor initiative, and its first proposal is a managed alcohol facility for chronic street alcoholics. The idea is harm reduction. So you provide a home for these people, with all the professional supports you’d find in other facilities, and a drink every hour or so.

What does alcohol have to do with mental illness? Clinical research reveals an alcoholic brain is  wired differently. Sober, it does not provide enough of the happy or calming chemicals that the “normal” brain gives to protect and uplift people from a challenging life. Thus, the alcoholic drinks to feel better. Unfortunately, the use of alcohol, a depressant, unleashes a downward spiral of lonely, obsessive self-medicating. There might be a genetic component, but research now points to trauma or neglect in childhood as a cause of skewed brain development.

I grew up in an alcoholic’s home. My dad was the sweetest man, with underlying depression and anxiety issues he “treated” with alcohol. His descent and then resurrection through Alcoholics Anonymous is the greatest story I know, but it doesn’t work for everyone. There’s a need for something different.

Alcoholics come from all over the spectrum. But alcoholism’s precursor—a traumatic, abusive or neglectful childhood—is more common with generational poverty. Canada’s residential school system introduced neglect, trauma and abuse into aboriginal communities, whose descendants remain infected with these shameful, trickle-down effects.

Imagine a child living in squalor, whose parents are neglectful and abusive. Imagine that child crying on his walk to school, hungry and unwashed.

Now imagine that child 20 or 30 years later, staggering drunk and dirty, in front of the Stanley Milner Library. What is our reaction?

Sadness and empathy? Or sanctimony, and disgust?

We can do better by these damaged, vulnerable street alcoholics, whose lives are third world at best. Our fellow citizens need our help.

I’m not a bleeding heart. I believe in personal responsibility and citizenship. So in my vision of an Edmonton facility, residents will not be able to drink outside of it, or cause any sort of crime or disorder.

Managed alcohol facilities exist in other cities across Canada. The best of them make significant and positive impacts on the lives of their residents, as well as the downtown community.

Make no mistake—street alcoholics live horrific lives. They are often desperate enough to drink hand sanitizer or alcohol-laced cleaning products. If they can get a bottle of booze, they might drink it as fast as possible, so as to not have it stolen or seized by police. So they pass out on public streets. Paramedics are called.

Often, they’re taken to an emergency room and may stay in the hospital for a few days. According to the Edmonton Homeless Commission, one chronic street alcoholic can cost the system $100,000 a year. We can do better. We can save money, free up police and paramedics for other priorities. We can remove much of the social disorder from our streets. We can protect vulnerable men and women, who were once sad little boys and girls, from pathetic lives of misery.

Scott McKeen (@scottmckeen) is a veteran reporter and rookie councillor for Ward 6.




  1. This seems well intentioned, but reads as so patronizing and classist.

  2. I agree with Ben- well intentioned, but patronizing! I wonder what Councillor McKeen’s thoughts are on existing facilities like Urban Manor. I also wonder where the city and provincial 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness fit into this. Housing First provides permanent housing and is harm reduction. Surely more of that would also be of benefit?

  3. This is a great piece. Despite what the above commenters say, I didn’t find it patronizing, but rather inspiring. I love that an elected official cares this deeply about the issue and is working to provide options for the disadvantaged.

  4. Here is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to the Editor of the Yards:

    While a ‘wet shelter’ or what could more appropriately be termed a ‘managed alcohol program’ incorporated into ‘harm reduction housing’ should be one type of program used to address the needs of those who face multiple barriers to housing – it should be viewed as part of a spectrum of programs needed to meet the needs of Edmontonians, not a stand-alone program as has been described it in this article. “The Edmonton Area Community Plan on Housing & Supports, 2011-2015” (
    describes the myriad of supports needed and McKeen fails to mention this important plan and the spectrum that ‘wet shelters’ are a part of.

    There are a number of Edmonton agencies that ‘take people as they are’ and try to work on alleviating the root causes of their homelessness and alcoholism. Those include the Boyle Street Community Services (, Urban Manor ( and the George Spady Centre. The George Spady Centre in particular, already serves as a shelter for people who are intoxicated and the detox program is actually separate from the overall shelter program (that does not insist on detox: The article in the Yards does not include mention of these services or any outline of what experts in Edmonton’s housing field feel are the next steps needed for expanding service provision to those who are facing multiple barriers to housing. There is an appetite for an expansion of managed alcohol programs in Edmonton, as evidenced by the joint RFP issued to assess this idea in July by the City of Edmonton, REACH & Homeward Trust ( However, McKeen’s article reads like a top-down solution that is being prescribed from on high rather than a suggested approach derived from research and the recommendations of organizations working on the ground.

    While I appreciate that the history of residential schools and their relationship to high rates of alcoholism and homelessness in our First Nations communities has been acknowledged in the article, it was done so in a haphazard and dangerous manner that fails to acknowledge that residential schools were part of a much broader colonial system that systematically discriminated against First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people; and that remnants of the racist and oppressive systems of the past are still at play today in our city. One of the most poignant examples of the ways that neo-colonialism and racism play out today is when those of us who hold the majority of power in our society attempt to prescribe solutions for our FNMI neighbours.

    It is essential that we support and respect individuals in our society who are experiencing multiple barriers to housing. In particular, we must respect their right to choose housing that will work best for them and increase their opportunities to make choices and have agency and power in their lives. The way that McKeen describes individuals as “damaged” people living “sad lives of misery”, potentially causing “crime and disorder” and adding “costs to the system” is not respectful and is anything but empowering language that will help create positive change.

    Research has shown that the most effective way to ensure that we are not carrying on negative traditions of the past is to advocate for ‘solutions’ that are developed at the grass-roots and are endorsed by the strong local leadership in indigenous organizations such as those involved with the Nikihk Aboriginal Housing First team that is operated by the Bent Arrow Healing Society operates ( Mental health professionals that I have encountered through my work and education in the social services advocate for a much more holistic approach to addressing mental health and alcoholism in particular, with a focus first on social justice; respect for the individuals served; & managed alcohol or harm reduction programs as one supportive approach among many.

    We must demonstrate an appropriate level of respect and responsiveness to the historical legacies of racism and imperialism that we are always at risk of perpetuating.

  5. Moves on many fronts are required. I can see how this could be one of them. I read warmth, compassion and dignity.

  6. Thank you for your thoughts.
    We need to meet the needs of the sick.
    Despite informed feedback addicts are criminalized.
    Diabetics are not sent to prison.
    Imagine a world where diabetics were criminalized. Absurd!
    Stop criminalizing addicts!!!!!!