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The Wet House

February 12, 2011

In early January, Bob Shaw at wrote a fascinating piece about “wet houses”—government-subsidized (i.e. taxpayer-funded) living facilities for chronic alcoholics whose recoveries have been deemed “hopeless.” The alcoholics are given a room, can freely leave and return at their leisure, and are permitted to drink as much as they wish (albeit in a designated backyard “drinking patio”).

These are people who love the bottle—more than their kids, their friends, their spouses—and they’re entirely content continuing the love-affair until they die.

Before rushing to judgment, it’s important to look at some facts:

But the men staying at St. Anthony say alcohol isn’t just a habit—it is who they are. If any kind of treatment were required, they would return to a homeless life of fear, disease and tremendous public expense.

It’s not uncommon for a homeless alcoholic to cost the public more than $1 million during decades of drinking—for multiple jail stays, emergency room visits, rounds of alcoholism treatment and other costs.

But the costs and the suffering are greatly reduced once they arrive at St. Anthony.

“This place is a godsend,” said 61-year-old Ron, a 40-year alcoholic and former South Dakota farmer who didn’t want his last name published.

He plans—as much as he plans anything—to drink until he dies at St. Anthony.

Still, despite the monetary savings, and the alternative for many residents (homeless, living in fear)—what are the ethical implications? And can someone ever be considered truly hopeless, beyond saving? If just one  person, out of the hundreds who have used the facilities, could have recovered, can wet houses be justified?

Then again, I’ll always remember the episode from the first season of Intervention, where camera crews documented a homeless alcoholic, Kelly, finish rehab, happily reunite with his dog, then head towards a liquor store to purchase his first forty oz. bottle of booze in two months (“damn, I’m thirsty”).

Even after having achieved (forced) sobriety, and the mental clarity that accompanies it, some people simply refuse to get better.

For these people—like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, a character who has completely given up on life, having decided to drink himself  to death—Wet Houses can serve a purpose.

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