Alternatives to Criminalizing Public Intoxication: Case Study of a Sobering Centre in Calgary, AB

  • Alina Turner University of Calgary


Western society has for centuries treated public intoxication as a crime, based on the idea that those found drunk in public can be harmful — to themselves, to the people around them, and to the social values of the community. To this day, public intoxication is in many places still a criminal offence, including in Canada. But what happens when, instead of approaching public drunkenness as a crime, we think of it as a symptom of larger problems? And what if, instead of routinely arresting those found drunk in public, we gave them a place to sober up, where they also have the opportunity to get help for other issues that may be contributing to the situation that put them there in the first place? As it turns out, this approach may provide a greater reduction in possible harm to the individual, others around him or her, and the broader community. In Calgary, Alpha House’s sobering centre facility takes this approach, welcoming clients who are not eligible for shelter in other, ‘dry’ facilities. Through its Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership (DOAP), Alpha House actively works to divert publicly intoxicated people from law-enforcement responses by bringing them into the shelter, or finding other alternatives to incarceration. Once clients have been taken into Alpha House, workers are available and motivated to help clients address any addiction or mental-health issues they might be struggling with and, if appropriate, to assist them in finding secure housing. During a twelve-month assessment period, the results of Alpha House’s approach appears to be having a dramatic effect in helping those who have turned up publicly intoxicated, with apparent benefits for the community. During the period measured, there was a 50.1 per cent annualized decrease in the average number of days that clients were hospitalized, compared to the 12-month average prior to their intake into facility programs. There was a 62.6 per cent decrease in the number of times clients were hospitalized, a 50 per cent decrease in the use of emergency medical services, and a 42.4 per cent decrease in the number of times using an emergency room. Most dramatically the study observed a 92.7 per cent decrease in the average number of days clients spent in jail compared to the year prior, and a 70.8 per cent decrease in the number of interactions with police. The number of times clients went to jail actually increased by 26.6 per cent, but that may have to do with Alpha House’s staff encouraging clients to address outstanding warrants and charges during their program participation. Calgary Police Services, meanwhile, reports notable decreases in people being processed for public intoxication in its downtown unit facilitated by partnership with community-based organizations, such as Alpha House. This is the crux of the harm-reduction approach: that holding cells should be a last resort for those publicly intoxicated people who cannot safely or effectively be helped through a sobering centre. But for those who are suitable for Alpha House’s program, the effects appear to be highly encouraging, providing an option to divert people facing the difficult personal circumstances that might cause them to be publicly intoxicated, into a program where they can access medical support, addiction and recovery programs. We may never eliminate public intoxication, but if our goal in criminalizing it has been to reduce harm to the individual and those around him or her, the sobering-centre approach appears to provide a much more effective response. Sobering centres will not and should not replace the need for medical intervention in some cases. They cannot replace the need for police custody as some clients cannot be safely assisted in such facilities. This means that the triage into sobering centres, health system and police custody will continue to be needed. Ultimately, a comprehensive approach to intoxication is necessary, one including sobering facilities along with a continuum of housing, health, and corrections responses that challenges the criminalization of addiction.
Research Papers