Harm reduction is a model that we know is crucial to promoting the health of people who are experiencing homelessness. In a nutshell, harm reduction is focusing on reducing the harm of certain behaviours, rather than demanding immediate abstinence. This is most often put into practice as the distribution of clean needles and promotion of safer injection. The idea is that although we ultimately want people to get clean, that involves making sure they stay healthy enough to get to that point.
The South West LHIN is currently taking some steps towards harm reduction in London, with consultations on a managed alcohol program (MAP). MAPs focus on reducing the harm of alcohol, usually by providing housing support that includes access to small amounts of alcohol on an hourly basis. These programs exist in Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton, and focus mostly on supporting those who consume non-beverage alcohol (ie. Listerine). I had an opportunity to participate in the consultation, and hope that this does indeed come to fruition in London. Those who face the most barriers to health in our community are those who are homeless and addicted.
I was recently exposed to another aspect of harm reduction and homelessness, which is the idea of housing first as a form of harm reduction. I read about this on a post from Bernie Pauly, which talked about a report out of Victoria, BC. Housing first is a model that has taken precedence in work on homelessness, and is the idea that before we think about addictions, mental health, poverty, food security, etc., we need to make sure people have a safe place to stay. The link between harm reduction and housing is that housing prevents much of the harm of homelessness.