‘Wet House’ Idea To Be Tried In Australia

A programme involving dispensing alcohol, just like medication, may be an answer to problems associated with homeless people battling chronic drink problems, say researchers. A new report, Feasibility of a Managed Alcohol Program (MAP) for Sydney’s homeless, has been prepared by St Vincent’s Hospital and funded by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

Unlike here in the UK, in Australia housing and other services targeting the homeless require abstinence before they will work with them. However, participants in the new scheme would be provided with housing, health and social services at a centre where they’d also be supplied with a standard drink hourly from 7am to 10pm.

Most alcohol-related services in the UK do not allow their clients to drink while on the premises. But, in the late 1970s, ‘wet’ projects were established in response to the recognition that for some homeless heavy drinkers this was an unrealistic requirement that excluded them from services and did nothing to address concerns over street drinking.

MAPs lead researcher, Dr. Nadine Ezard, said: “Alcohol dependent homeless people experience higher rates of chronic illness, injuries and assaults, longer hospital stays, increased mortality, and higher levels of contact with the criminal justice system. Many also suffer from mental illness and alcohol-related brain injury.”

The researchers reviewed the evidence on MAPs and conducted a small survey of potential MAP users in Sydney to estimate the costs and savings in setting one up a pilot 15-person facility in the city. They found the costs would easily be offset by medical, criminal justice, and crisis accommodation savings, estimating a net benefit of at least $485,000.

Those surveyed were asked about a day shelter or a residential facility that either allowed bring-your-own alcohol or provided one drink every hour for 15 hours a day. Most indicated a strong interest in a MAP, preferably for the residential model, being prepared to pay up to 90 per cent of their income where alcohol was provided.

Noting public nuisance and cost savings, Dr. Ezard said one participant had taken part in a short-term withdrawal program 116 times. MAPs could also prevent people from drinking “non-beverage alcohol” such as methylated spirits or hospital hand wash.

Dr. Ezard concluded: “We are trying to start a dialogue, very much from a public health, harm reduction perspective, and put forward an alternative for policymakers.”