Wet Houses for Late Stage Alcoholics

When a late stage alcoholic has reached rock bottom they usually have been through multiple treatment centers, programs, and DUI convictions. Usually most of these late staged alcoholics have spent time in jail, lost ties with family members, and have lost all hope. It’s an endless routine of drinking and waiting for the next drink, usually until death.

These are the individuals you will see panhandling on streets and sleeping under bridges or on the street side. A research team from the University of Washington studied 95 chronically homeless alcoholics and discovered that they cost tax payers over $8 million a year. This money goes towards detox treatment centers, incarceration, and hospitalization.

Most late staged alcoholics use these programs for a place to stay or a way to get a hot meal, but don’t care for the bottomless optimistic “we can do it” attitude that programs like AA have to offer.

In St. Paul Minnesota they have developed a controversial solution to these individuals needs. They are called Wet-houses; they don’t have counselors, any 12-step programs, or group hugs. They are considered the hospice for late staged alcoholics.

When you look into one of the 60 residence rooms at St. Anthony’s Residences in St. Paul; it’s no bigger than a prison cell. 12-by-12 foot brick walls with a window, bed, and closet. It might not look like much, but to resident Nick Lott’s it’s a blessing. Lott said “This is all I’ve got, really…It’s clean, comfortable, safe, and that’s a big thing.”

The St. Anthony Residence in St. Paul in partly funded by the state of Minnesota and operated by Catholic Charities. The facility is not considered a treatment center, but residents have access to counselors. The residents are also allowed to drink in the facilities.

The alcohol is not provided by the establishment, but the residences do receive a monthly check for $89. They are not monitored are told where they can use the money; so the residence will use the money for toiletries and openly admit to using the rest of the money on alcohol.

St. Anthony’s program director Bill Hockenberger said “These are all men that have been through treatment, numerous attempts,” and believes in St. Anthony’s principle that it’s safer and cheaper to have these individuals drink in a controlled and safe environment.

Hockenberger said, “These are men that lost their jobs, relationships, [and] homes due to alcohol.”

These principles have led to the opening of several more wet-houses in Minneapolis. Other cities are considering building similar housing in Alaska, Philadelphia, Memphis, Anchorage, and Tennessee. Even though the principle is spreading there is great concern about there methods and has delayed opening of houses.

In Seattle the opening of 1811 Eastlake was delayed for six years. Administrative director for Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Center, Nicole Macri said “A lot of the rhetoric that their attorney used was that it would be a party house, a free-for-all…It really has more of a feel of a convalescent home than a party house.”

When the University of Washington studied the group of 95 chronic alcoholics; they put them in one of the first wet-houses that opened in Seattle. The study which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association proved that the same group cost taxpayers $4 million. At St. Anthony’s Residence in St. Paul the cost of a night is less than $50, which the cost in a detox facility is $200 a night.

William C. Moyer is a director at Hazelden addiction treatment center in St. Paul Minneapolis area and believes that it’s giving up on a treatable disease. The idea of giving chronic alcoholics access to their drug of choice in the expense of the taxpayer is unacceptable.

Moyer said, “We feel that that it’s never too late, and that even if the alcoholic doesn’t want help, doesn’t mean that their drinking should be condoned or in any other way enabled or facilitated,” but most residence at St. Anthony’s don’t agree.

Rich Isacc is a three year resident at St. Paul and said “Treatment is a bunch of B.S…Those AA people make me sick. I hate hearing about other people’s problems. I have my own problems. If you want to quit, you quit on your own.”

The residences of these facilities arrive as refugees of countless anti-drinking programs and usually get referred by social workers or counselors that have noticed the redundancy in their attendance in treatment centers; or they just come off the streets.

Hockenberger said “It’s just so honest here.” These individuals are going to continue to drink. The alcohol will probably kill them and no one is going to talk them out of it. There is an in-house hospice service and three to five residents die every year.

Katie Tuione, program manager at Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, a homeless shelter said, “This is about meeting people where they are and loving them. It’s not rocket science…They still grieve, love and hurt. They still need food and shelter. They are you and I.” Tuione accepts that there are a certain amount of alcoholics that don’t want to be sober.

Professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Steven Miles agrees and supports St. Anthony, “It is the humanity of it, just like humanity drives the hospice system.”

Miles described the issue with an interesting simile, “watching people drink themselves to death is like watching chemotherapy patients gathering outside hospitals to smoke…certainly no one encourages them to do this. But this is a society where people get to make their own choices, however bad they are.”

It’s a depressing thought that there is a place where individuals can go and literally drink themselves to death, but to these individuals this is as good as it gets. Also studies have shown that the results are less costly on tax payers. This is the one solution where as sad as it sounds becomes a win-win for the individual and society.

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