Gimme Shelter First

Drinking decreases when homeless allowed to drink in public housing

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The homeless often cope with daily life by drinking heavily. A recent study shows that allowing those in public housing to consume alcohol actually decreases drinking behaviors.

Traditional public housing requires that residents be substance free. A new kind of public housing does not require abstinence. Contrary to popular belief, people staying in these shelters drank less in these new projects.

"Ask your therapist about treating instability issues before addressing substance abuse."

Susan E. Collins, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at University of Washington, thinks that traditional housing projects demand too much from their residents. Because the barrier to entry is too high many do not qualify for housing and end up on the street.

"These individuals have multiple medical, psychiatric and substance abuse problems, and housing that requires them to give up their belongings, adhere to curfews, stop drinking and commit to treatment all at once is setting them up to fail,” says Dr. Collins.

Once the residents are back out on the street they cost the taxpayers money in the form of ER visits, shelter and sobering center upkeep costs, arrests, and other public service costs.

Collins continues, "Participants in the study told us that they're happy to have a home, and happy that they no longer have to drink to stay warm or to put themselves to sleep or to forget that they're on the streets."

One such housing project is the project-based Housing First by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a Seattle based housing agency. The agency’s 1811 Eastlake housing project is the first of its kind to be scientifically studied.

Residents spend 30% of their income on rent, if they have it, and are given permanent and immediate housing and social services. The study found that over a 2 year period the average drinks-per-day of a resident was reduced from 20 to 12, a 40% decrease. The average number of drinks on the heaviest drinking day also decreased from 40 to 26, a 35% difference.

Health of residents improved as well. Those who reported instances of delirium tremens, a deadly form of alcohol withdrawal, decreased from 65% to 23%.

94% of participants were male and most were white, at 40%, or American Indian/Alaska Native, at 27%. After 2 years 61% of participants remained in the study.

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health on January 19th 2012 and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 21, 2012
Last Updated:
January 25, 2012