Are Wet House Facilities Really Helping Alcoholics?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

When most people think of homeless shelters, they envision buildings that offer up free hot meals, cots for sleeping, and some fairly strict rules. Normally, alcohol is a huge no-no for shelter residents. However, a new kind of service is turning that rule on its head. Known as “wet houses,” these specialized shelters are built to give the homeless a safe place to sleep and get drunk.

A Wet House Defined

Wet houses are popping up in a select number of cities across the nation. These residential facilities cater to the chronically alcoholic and homeless population. While there, they can eat, sleep, and drink as much as they want. What’s more, the residents are not required to undergo any form of counseling or treatment. That being said, it should come as no surprise to learn that a number of wet house residents ultimately drink themselves to death.

Reports have indicated the cost of hosting one wet house resident is less than leaving a homeless alcoholic on the street where he or she places a heavy burden on social, legal, and medical services.

Additionally, a University of Washington study showed wet house residents tend to drink less and are more inclined to accept treatment once in a stable environment. The problem is that most wet house facilities don’t offer rehabilitation options on-site or require residents to participate in any kind of outpatient recovery program.

Supporters of the Movement

A major pro-wet house argument is that homeless alcoholics experience the highest number of physical injuries requiring emergency transportation and medical services from hospital emergency departments. The resulting bills are ultimately paid by the city’s tax payers. To address that, a number of wet houses have medical professionals on-site or nearby to treat the sick and injured.

Supporters claim investing in wet house facilities can ultimately save millions of dollars. As proof, they refer to a study conducted by the San Francisco Health Department that determined the city spends $13.5 million each year in caring for its 225 chronic homeless alcoholics.

The Wet House Controversy

On the other side of the fence, the notion of building shelters specifically for the purpose of ensuring a safe drinking environment is not sweepingly popular. Large segments of tax-paying citizens resent the idea of funding an initiative that would provide free alcohol, hand out regular stipends that can be used to purchase whatever residents want (including alcohol or drugs), or allow outside alcohol to be brought onto the premises.

Dufty’s opponents also point out that elected officials would never support the idea of setting up shelters for homeless heroin addicts and handing out money or bundles of black tar heroin on a daily basis.Despite the backlash, a number of cities have doggedly pursued wet house construction. For example, San Francisco Mayor Bevan Dufty is a huge supporter of the wet house movement. He has been trying to sell San Francisco residents on the idea since 2010, but the plan has yet to go over. In fact, the initiative is consistently slammed by critics, earning the nickname “bunks for drunks.”

Dufty’s opponents also point out that elected officials would never support the idea of setting up shelters for homeless heroin addicts and handing out money or bundles of black tar heroin on a daily basis. There’s no distinction between substances; addiction is addiction no matter a person’s drug of choice.

A Pioneer Facility

Seattle, Washington is home to one of the very first wet house facilities. The original residents, predominantly men, were selected from a list of 200 of the most frequent users of the public hospital, jail, and sobering center in Seattle. They also had to be unsuccessful in conventional recovery programs no less than six times.

Today, the government-subsidized housing project caters exclusively to 75 alcoholics who are allowed to drink as much as they want and forego any kind of treatment. Annual turnover is around 25 percent due to deaths, evictions and people who are moved into hospice care, nursing homes, or other housing.

Insiders have dubbed the shelter a “success,” citing statistics that show a large decrease in the volume of drinking. For example, Seattle wet house residents drank an average of 20 drinks per day on admission, and within two years, that number fell to 12 drinks per day.

A Bleak Outlook

For all the milestones, the end result for most wet house residents is not a good one. While some have claimed the programs offer “pre-recovery housing,” there is absolutely no expectation that the residents will get or remain sober.

In fact, the original Seattle wet house residents were selected from a ranked list of 200 men. The facility chose the most frequently seen individuals in the public hospital, jail and sobering center in Seattle. They also had to fail conventional treatment at least a half-dozen times.

Bill Hobson, executive director of Seattle’s wet house facility, admits the best hope for most residents is that they’ll drink less. However, the likelihood that they’ll stay sober is slim, given their history, age, and severity of alcoholism.
Learn more about the signs of alcoholism and available treatment options.

Images: Carrie Thompson/Flickr

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