Giving drinks to chronically homeless drunks may be just what the Tenderloin needs. A recent story on ABC reported that San Francisco is considering setting up “wet houses:” government-funded locations where chronic drunks can receive alcohol rations. It sounds crazy, but it’s actually worked in Seattle. What ABC won’t tell you is exactly why the first pilot program in Canada, upon which Seattle’s program was based, worked. It worked because it dispensed small amounts of alcohol to drunks throughout the day, making overdoses less likely, and thus reducing health care costs to the city.
I researched the economics of homelessness and panhandling fairly extensively for my job at Mother Jones magazine, and I can definitely say that it’s true that a very small percentage of the homeless (sometimes called the “hardcore homeless”) account for a hugely disproportionate amount of city funds spent on the homeless. It can be up to around 80%, depending on the city. Largely, these are law enforcement and health care costs. As the researchers in Canada who created the first homeless “wet house” discovered, alcoholics will drink anything with alcohol in it. Rubbing alcohol, cough syrup, anything. Drinking “non-beverage” alcohol is very hard on the body, and homeless drunks tended to go on binges when they got money from federal agencies on the first or fifteenth of the month.
That means at least once a month, more likely several times, they’d OD on some rot-gut alcohol and have to be hospitalized. Dispensing actual vodka or wine to them, on an hourly basis, in small amounts, kept withdrawal symptoms at bay and also kept them near to the wet house instead of wandering on the streets. As a result, their overall health and happiness levels went up, and calls to emergency services and thus the costs to the tax-payer plummeted.
Avoiding withdrawal symptoms is key to any program, as alcoholism is one of the few drug addictions where withdrawal can actually kill you. Regarding the SF program, it looks like our helmet-haired mayor is endorsing it. But until I actually see the wet houses opening, I won’t believe this program is coming to SF, a city that seems to do everything possible to make the homeless welcome but not treat the true causes of their problems. Too bad, because this program could save SF some dollars and with this economy, we can use every cent.
On a somewhat related note, I found this striking collection of photos of the homeless by a TenderLocal. The author takes photos of homeless people around the Loin as he sees them. He’s even captured my local, disability-faking homeless dude Christopher several times. Small world.