Free alcohol makes homeless healthier, safer

Published: January 4, 2006 | 3185th good news item since 2003

Giving homeless alcoholics a regular supply of booze may improve their health and their behaviour, the Canadian Medical Association Journal said in a study published today.

Seventeen homeless adults, all with long and chronic histories of alcohol abuse, were allowed up to 15 glasses of wine or sherry a day – a glass an hour from 7am to 10pm – in the Ottawa-based program, which started in 2002 and is continuing. [The Visible Poor : Homelessness in the United States]

After an average of 16 months, the number of times participants got in trouble with the law had fallen 51 per cent from the three years before they joined the program, and hospital emergency room visits were down 36 per cent. [Companions in Crime : The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct]

“Once we give a ‘small amount’ of alcohol and stabilise the addiction, we are able to provide health services that lead to a reduction in the unnecessary health services they were getting before,” said Dr Jeff Turnbull, one of the authors of the report.

“The alcohol gets them in, builds the trust and then we have the opportunity to treat other medical diseases … It’s about improving the quality of life.”

Three of the 17 participants died during the program, succumbing to alcohol-related illnesses that might have killed them anyway, the study said.

The report showed participants in the program drank less than they did before signing up, and their sleep, hygiene, nutrition and health levels all improved.

The per capita cost of around $C771 (US $665) a month was partially offset by monthly savings of $C96 (US $82) a month in emergency services, $C150 (US $129) in hospital care and $C201 (US $173) in police services per person.

Turnbull said some of the people enrolled in the program had stopped drinking altogether, although that was not an option for many of the participants. [Beyond the Influence : Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism]

“We agree 100 per cent that abstinence is the most appropriate route,” he said.

“But in this subset of people where abstinence has failed, there is still a need to provide care.”

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