Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has no quarrel with publicly funded treatment for alcoholics. But he said he struggles with taxpayer money going to housing for chronic alcoholics that offer no treatment at all.
Not only that, he was surprised to learn, the so-called "wet houses" don't even require their homeless residents to stay sober.
"I understand these people are very sick, but I don't think that means you should expect absolutely nothing out of them," Johnson said. "If we're going to provide you housing, you should figure out how to stop being drunk all the time."
Jeff is a nice guy, generally. I used to work with his wife, so I've met him and the kids, and a cuter family you're not likely to meet. But this....
According to the American Indian Community Development Corp., which operates the home with Project for Pride in Living, Wakiagun saves taxpayers more than $500,000 a year by reducing detox admissions, emergency room visits and jail bookings.
In the JAMA study, published in April, University of Washington public health researchers monitored 95 homeless chronic alcoholics before and after they moved into a wet house, and compared them with 39 others waiting to get in.
Before the wet house, the median cost of each of the 95 was $4,000 a month. After a year in the wet house the cost per person dropped to $960, mostly for housing.
This works. It cuts down on crime, both those perpetrated by the residents and those with the residents as victims. It cuts down on drinking. Several of the people interviewed for the story had quit while residents, even though sobriety wasn't a requirement of residence.
Still, Johnson isn't persuaded. "If what you're doing isn't right, the fact that it might be cheaper in the long run doesn't mean it's the best outcome. ... It seems to be spending money to help people give up on themselves," he says. That would indeed be terrible--if it were true.
The only way Johnson's point of view would be valid is if alcoholism were the vice the Victorians and Edwardians thought it was instead of the disease we now know it to be. Like any disease, what the JAMA study shows is that treating the symptoms of alcoholism, the homelessness and victimization, leads to a better outcome for the patient. Acting as though those symptoms are a visitation from God for a life of sin does not. It just adds a burden of stress for a patient whose disease is worsened by stress.
This is why I want my politics to be reality-based.