An alcoholic man
More cities are considering adding "wet houses," facilities where homeless and at risk alcoholics can indulge but stay safe. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Major news wires recently began carrying a story about a “wet house” in St. Paul, Minn. A wet house is a facility where alcoholics, many of which are homeless, can go to live but continue to drink on the theory that it is better for them and society at large if they can at least stay safe. More cities are beginning to have similar facilities.

St. Anthony Residence stirs controversy

Stories have begun appearing in major newspapers and on major news websites and television shows about a facility in St. Paul, Minn, called the St. Anthony Residence. The St. Anthony Residence is a “wet house,” where people who are in the debilitating grip of alcohol addiction can drink in a safe setting. The facility gives homeless alcoholics a place to stay, and they can keep drinking if they want to as long as they do so safely. Some people are up in arms over the idea because it allows addicts to keep using when they should be getting clean. However, St. Paul is not the first city to try the idea.

Emerald City proves the concept

As of 2006, according to an ABC article from that year, the city of Seattle was running a facility called the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a “wet house” where homeless alcoholics can live and continue to drink. The idea is the same; if people are provided a safe place to indulge, it benefits everyone. The DESC, also referred to by its address of 1811 Eastlake, costs taxpayers $1 million per year. However, a University of Washington study found that the program saved taxpayers nearly $4 million per year, according to the San Francisco Gate, by keeping addicts in a safe setting and thus out of hospitals and jails. As a result of the success of the Seattle program, in late 2010 the city of San Francisco was thinking of opening its own “wet house,” though it has not followed through with plans yet.

Harm reduction works better than prison

Currently, the common responses to drug or alcohol addiction is to force addicts into rehab or prison. Rehab only works some of the time, and our national drug policy is a major point of contention. Wet houses rely on harm reduction, or finding a way in which harm is reduced to the addict and to society while allowing continued but responsible use. The Seattle facility, for instance, administers regular doses of alcohol to residents, and most end up reducing the number of doses they take daily. On average, they went from 15.7 drinks to 10.6. Similar effects have been noted in other drug maintenance programs; if drug addicts are given regular, clinically controlled doses, they often will reduce the amount they take and many end up getting clean. Heroin maintenance programs, wherein heroin addicts are given regular doses in a controlled setting, are in place in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and are proven to reduce crime, overdose and the spread of HIV and hepatitis.

Sources

CNN: http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/06/where-alcoholics-can-drink-themselves-to-death/?hpt=C2

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/magazine/mag-01YouAreHere-t.html

ABC: http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2006/07/inebriated_in_s.html

San Francisco Gate: http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-10-03/bay-area/24109530_1_alcoholics-seattle-peace

Wikipedia on heroin maintenance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroin-assisted_treatment

For a scholarly look at drug treatment methods, see “Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed” by Judge James Gray.


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