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Are Wet Houses for Alcoholics a Smart Approach to Alcoholism?

Wet Houses are residential housing facilities for homeless people suffering from chronic alcoholism. Unlike other shelters that require residents to attend addiction treatment, stay sober and adhere to strict curfews, tenants at these harm reduction shelters can drink as much alcohol as they want.

Wet Houses for Alcoholics

In some cases, residents even receive a small monthly stipend – $89 at St. Anthony’s wet house in St. Paul, Minnesota – in addition to three meals a day and a bed.

“There are people who say, ‘That’s outrageous,'” St. Anthony’s service coordinator, Jim Gillham, told the New York Times, suggesting that some believe the facility is simply enabling alcoholics.

“Well, we’re not actually doing that…,” Gillham said. “Many residents drink much less than they did on the street.”

What Does the Research Say About Wet Houses?

A 2009 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, backs Gillham’s claims up.

Researchers tracked 95 residents of a Seattle, Washington, wet house and noted that tenants who consumed an average of 20 drinks a day upon admission reduced their daily alcohol intake by 40 percent within two years.

According to the study’s findings, the city of Seattle also benefitted. Before living in the shelter, homeless alcoholics cost taxpayers an estimated $4,000 a month in healthcare, emergency services and incarceration expenses.

After just a month in the wet house, the average monthly cost per person shrunk to $985.

Harm reduction facilities, like Boston’s Supportive Place for Observation and Treatment (SPOT), which offers opioid users medical monitors while they’re “high,” attempt to lessen the negative impact of chronic addiction.

These models have become increasingly popular in the wake of a failed “war on drugs” and the opioid crisis waylaying entire communities across the country.

What are the Concerns About Wet Houses?

There are however, vocal critics of the harm reduction model. In the case of wet houses for homeless alcoholics, for instance, opponents voice their concern over some of the following issues:

  • Whether or not the government should participate in funding shelters for alcoholics
  • That it’s immoral and inhumane to allow a person to drink themselves to death
  • The lack of counseling provided
  • Worry for communities in which wet house shelters are located

For their part, advocates of wet houses point to lower crime rates when homeless alcoholics are given housing, as well as the overall financial savings for taxpayers.

“These individuals have multiple medical, psychiatric and substance abuse problems,” Susan Collins, lead author of the Seattle study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, said in a statement.

Collins added that shelters with strict, traditional rules and regulations “…are relegating some of the most vulnerable people in our community to a life on the streets.”

Scientists agree that alcoholism and addiction is a chronic relapsing disease of the brain and not a moral failure. Public awareness might still be catching up to that fact, but those in the field of substance abuse recovery report that everyone responds differently to treatment.

It’s not always clear why it works for some and not for others. Destitution and homelessness only fuel addiction and for some alcoholics, a wet house might be the safest solution.


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