Allowing alcohol in homeless shelters: A new model emerges

Posted Dec 16, 2014 by Glen Olives
A new experiment in Washington State suggests that allowing homeless shelter residents to consume alcohol on the premises–an uncommon practice in the U.S.–may be superior to the traditional abstinence-only approach.
A homeless man sits on a bus bench and watches people as they pass by.
A homeless man sits on a bus bench and watches people as they pass by.
Scott Keyes, a sociologist writing for the Pacific Standard, recently examined a case of the homeless shelter project known as 1811 Eastlake, which specializes in providing shelter and help to homeless people with severe alcohol problems. But unlike most other programs, residents are allowed to continue drinking in their rooms. While this may seem counterintuitive, the executive director, Bill Hobson explains, Telling a homeless alcoholic he needs to clean up his life before he enters housing is the functional equivalent of telling an obese person they have to lose weight before they can go to the gym.
Residents are paired with counselors, and under an alcohol intake management program, their drinking is monitored and alcohol dispensed at regular times pursuant to a voluntary contract.
The idea for the project was germinated in 1997 in order to deal with the Chronically Publicly Inebriated (CPIs) among Seattle's homeless population. With $400,000 in funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the 1811 Eastlake project (often referred to as a "housing first" program) opened its doors in 2005. In 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of the project.
The results have been impressive. There has been a significant reduction of alcohol-related hospitalizations, resulting in taxpayer savings of over $4 million. A separate study by the University of Washington found that overall alcohol consumption by residents fell by 40 percent, and alcohol related behavioral problems leading to injuries or arrests fell by 38 percent. Some residents have found complete sobriety.
The success of the project has led to other American cities, including Anchorage, New York, Chicago, and Fort Worth to start their own "wet house" programs. Keyes notes that despite the program's success there is still resistance from the traditional alcohol treatment community, among others, but "medically and statistically it is the right path forward."