Surprising Study Results About Homeless People and Alcoholism

It sounds like common sense: if you provide free food and shelter for homeless alcoholics and allow them their booze, they’ll probably drink themselves to death. But conventional wisdom isn’t always correct. Now a new study confirms earlier research on so-called “wet houses,” showing that residents who are allowed to drink actually drink less.

The homeless residents in the study cut the number of drinks they consumed daily by 40% over the course of two years in a home that did not require abstinence. Moreover, for every three months of their stay, participants consumed eight fewer drinks on average on their heaviest drinking days. The occurrence of delirium tremens, or DTs — potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms — also declined by more than half, with 65% of residents reporting suffering DTs in the month before being housed, compared with just 23% in the month afterward.

The study followed 95 participants, mainly white and American Indian or Native Alaskan men in their 40s, who lived in Seattle’s 1811 Eastlake residence. Unlike other shelters, the Seattle program does not require participants to observe curfews or abstain from drinking — rules that in other cases tend to keep the heaviest drinkers on the streets and in and out of jail or the emergency room. At least 40% of chronically homeless people suffer from alcoholism.

“These individuals have multiple medical, psychiatric and substance abuse problems, and housing that requires them to give up their belongings, adhere to curfews, stop drinking and commit to treatment all at once is setting them up to fail. The result is that we are relegating some of the most vulnerable people in our community to a life on the streets,” Susan Collins, lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, said in a statement.

After two years, the study found, 61% of participants were still living in the residence, a remarkable retention level for this population, who typically don’t stay long in housing programs that require abstinence. The Seattle program is intended to be a permanent residence. It wasn’t just that those with the least severe alcohol problems who were able to stay and cut back; researchers didn’t see differences in demographics or drinking levels in those who stayed versus those who left.

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