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Homeless and alcoholic shouldn’t mean a death sentence

The death of a Saskatoon man who was jailed more than 800 times for drunkenness should be a wake-up call for Canadian mayors and city councillors.
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Nevil Hunt, May 13, 2013 10:14:41 AM

Alvin Cote died in April and he will be missed. The Saskatoon man spent many nights in the city police drunk tank over the past two decades. He was 60 when he died of pneumonia.

Cote was arrested more than 800 times yet still left a good impression on the city’s police officers.

“It’s not often that you can arrest somebody on multiple occasions and end up being friends with them,” Const. Derek Chesney told a reporter for The Toronto Star.

Cote is described as a real character, recognizable to many of Saskatoon’s citizens with a scraggly grey beard and moustache.

Cote preferred to be homeless, despite offers of help. He wanted to drink and appears to have hit the bottle whenever he could.

Should society give up and forget people like Cote – just let them drink themselves to death – or should we offer an alternative?

For those people who say the chronic alcoholic who chooses to live outside the social system gets the life they deserve, it’s worth considering the financial cost of living in a city where people can be a danger to themselves.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix estimated that Cote cost the city’s taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in medical bills, ambulance trips and police time. If the cold-hearted among us won’t act on humanitarian grounds, they should at least respect the financial benefits of helping those who won’t help themselves.

Calgary appears to be leading the way. Alpha House is a shelter that – unlike many other shelters in our cities – will accept alcoholics and drug users. The progressive shelter has reduced the use of the police drunk tank by 70 per cent and saved taxpayers roughly $5 million.

Alpha House may even be able to turn around some lives. If even a handful of people who are a danger to themselves can be rehabilitated, we all benefit: socially and financially. If Saskatoon had an Alpha House, maybe Cote would be alive and able to have a normal life.

Instead, Cote faced a revolving door at the local jail, followed by more drinking when he got out. News reports suggest police officers went out of their way to help him cope with homelessness, and some even gave him cash, which no doubt was spent on more booze.

The good intentions of Saskatoon’s police officers are evident. The end result is all too familiar. People want to help the less fortunate, but the social system has a gap we can never fill with goodwill alone.

Every Canadians deserves a chance to be happy and healthy. And every Canadian city should have an Alpha House.

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Nevil Hunt

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