‘Wet’ shelters: Helping or harming the homeless?

By Bridget Higgins

Collegian File Photo
(Collegian File Photo)

Wet shelters, which allow homeless residents to engage in some form of drinking, are receiving attention for the methods in which they allow residents to drink on their premises.

Alcoholism is indeed one of the deadliest addictions in the nation. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), excessive alcohol use led to around 90,000 deaths each year in the U.S. This included homicide while intoxicated, drinking and driving deaths, alcohol poisoning and other accidents. The idea behind wet shelters was to bring chronic and severe alcoholics into the system, hoping to maneuver them from housing to treatment. The goal is to take alcoholics off of the street and bring them to a safe place to stay and drink under supervision.

In theory, this is a great idea. In some aspects, it works well, too. For example, one Seattle study showed that residents of wet shelters decreased their intake of alcoholic beverages over two years from 20 drinks per day to 12. Another study showed that the average individual in a Seattle wet housing program cost the city only a quarter of what they used to before entering the system.

However, there are many very real and relevant drawbacks to wet shelters. For one, a study by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust showed that a number of those in wet housing ultimately drink themselves to death. In addition, Rehabs.com reported that wet shelters do not require residents to undergo any form of counseling or treatment. This is almost counterintuitive to the idea of getting chronic, severe alcoholics into the system. Drinking an unlimited amount throughout the night may allow them to drink comfortably, but there is no guarantee of rehabilitation.

Another vulnerability of wet shelters is that they can perpetuate an unsafe environment, both within the shelter and on the streets. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence found that 40 percent of all violent crimes today involved alcohol. In addition, the World Health Organization reported that, “Alcohol use directly affects cognitive and physical function, reducing self-control and leaving individuals less capable of negotiating a non-violent resolution.” This has manifested itself within the shelter at Craig’s Place just last week, where a woman grabbed at the neck during a conflict, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Another incident occurred in Amherst Center earlier in the week, when two shelter residents engaged in a violent fight during the daytime in front of Antonio’s. These are just some of the many calls involving alcohol induced violence in Amherst. For those who must stay at Craig’s Place who are not under any influence, merely seeking a safe place to stay, these instances of violence affect the safety of the shelter every day.

In addition to the perpetuation of violent conflict, wet shelters, at least in the case of Craig’s Place in Amherst, do not require rehab meetings or contain rehabilitation facilities on-site. I am no expert in chronic alcoholism, so I will take experts’ advice that allowing moderate amounts of drinking instead of quitting cold turkey is a more effective solution to alcoholism. However, there is no “moderation” within wet shelters. You may drink however much you want throughout the night, store your alcohol safely and take it out into public the next day with you. No one is trying to enforce counseling or solutions to substance abuse issues within the shelter.

I do not necessarily disagree with the institution of wet shelters. However, these shelters as they currently stand are not helping with the problem so much as perpetuating substance abuse on a constant and daily basis. If wet shelters remain in place in Amherst, a rehabilitation or at least a counseling requirement should be in place, along with supervision and moderation of drinking—enough to ward off deadly withdrawal symptoms but not enough to cause excessive disorientation and violence. This is the only way to ensure safety of the homeless population while at least trying to keep people from hurting themselves, others or drinking themselves to death.

Bridget Higgins is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Craig’s Place in Amherst allows its residents to bring alcohol onto the property, and uses funds to purchase alcohol for the residents. Further, Craig’s Place does not allow a “safe drinking zone” on its property. The story has since been corrected.