Housing Drunks and Letting Them Drink Saves Millions

Classic social programs dealing with long-term alcoholics are expensive and do not have a great success rate. In 2005, a controversial experimental program in Seattle began to put homeless drunks in their own apartment building and let them drink as they pleased.
A new study came out in JAMA this week detailing whether the concept of "Housing First," as it's known, had any impact (here's an AP piece on the study). The 98 street drunks whom the study tracked had cost the public $4,066 a month prior to entering 1811 and afterwards they cost $1,492 a month after six months in the facility and $958 a month after 12 months. That's a pretty big savings and, oddly enough, some of the residents began to drink less. Some even got sober. (Some also died.)


While this sort of program would have to replicated elsewhere to see if these savings hold, it sure is a vastly more humane way to deal with a chronic urban problem than in the past. It also has all sorts of implications for addressing homelessness among the mentally ill, chronic crackheads and junkies of every stripe. My own guess is that, for example, housing the mentally ill who are homeless instead of herding them into very stressful homeless shelters or leaving them to the streets would improve their mental health issues dramatically, with or without medications. There is something magical about having a roof over one's head, even a modest one.

The financial aspects of this experiment are not all that surprising, but is it really a good idea? Is it more ethical to spend time and money to try to save people from their own bad decisions, or to give them the dignity of living their lives the way they choose, however harmful? Does this kind of program send the wrong message? Or would it make our streets safer? http://www.furiousseasons.com/archives/2009/04/study_housing_homeless_drunks_and_letting_them_drink_saves_millions.html -via reddit

(image credit: Flickr user dno1967)

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Indeed this is the sort of issue I grapple with constantly. I waffle between being a "bleeding heart" liberal/socialist and a pragmatic conservative.
I think that it is worth it, for society, to help these people. By giving them a stable roof over their head, you are not only maybe reducing "costs" but you are probably also reducing local crime, especially little stuff like petty larceny, public drunkenness/exposure, etc. But there are the ethics of allowing (condoning?) self-medication with drugs/alcohol. Also at the same time I feel like giving a person something for free just because they've had it bad isn't fair.

I have battled intermittent severe depression my whole life. I have been lucky to have a very supportive family and husband who can help take care of me when things get Really Bad. But I have enough of a support system that I live a decent life that is sometimes extremely stressful and things are stretched thin. I guess I am resentful at the idea that if someone goes "all the way" to hit rock bottom, they get a handout versus other people who barely manage to keep their sh*t together must scrape by. (Similar to my annoyance that once you have a baby, you get tons of free education, etc)
BUT. I wholly believe in doing what is good for society. To be a good humanitarian and help when and where I can. So I think I can tolerate a little uncomfortableness or resentment, when it is balanced with knowing that things are getting better.

This is what ethics majors live for.
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I too agree with capella, I've been homeless and addicted to substances. (Sure I couch surfed and cruised around on my bicycle the whole time, but i lived out of a backback, slept wherever, and didn't have a job for almost a year.) Anyway my point here is that most people i've met and hung out with who have been homeless for years (not fake-can-i-sleep-in-your-backyard-homeless) while addicted to substances and seem to be silently at war with themselves having realized America is filled with greedy, inhumane, selfish people. Why would you want to return to the "functioning" society after being free from all that mess for so long? Or would you? I am glad I got my sht together. Maybe they don't want to.
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I agree with capella, more houses for homeless people. I pay for rent, doesn't mean I can't bear to see someone less fortunate live for free. College degrees for convicts on the other hand, I don't know, something about giving a convict a degree for free where I would have to live in a financial prison for a majority of life seems a bit strange. Plus what ahppens when the only people with degrees are convicts? Or everyone starts becoming cons so they can get degrees?
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