January 14, 2014; Ocala Star-Banner

If you’re homeless, addicted to alcohol, and living in Amsterdam, there might be a homeless shelter that meets your needs. According to the Ocala Star-Banner, homeless men “must show up at 9 a.m., three days a week. They start off with two beers, work a morning shift, eat lunch, get two more beers, and then do an afternoon shift before closing out with their last beer. Sometimes there’s a bonus beer.” Men receive beer, tobacco, food and around fifteen dollars. For a total package of around $25 dollars, those in the program are expected to conduct work like “collecting litter” in exchange for a meal and agreeing to keep discipline in meeting their scheduled objectives.

The City of Amsterdam came to developing this program through much trial and tribulation. According to the article, “a group of around 50 rowdy, aging alcoholics had plagued a park in east Amsterdam, annoying other park-goers with noise, litter and occasional harassment.” Through the years, the city worked to create a variety of solutions to meet the needs of those occupying the park, ultimately spending over 1 million euros on programs ranging from traditional treatment programs to having family barbeques and picnics for those in the park. Nothing seemed to work until the creation of this new program.

Homeless shelters have been increasingly offering alcohol to those living in their shelters for some time, which had been originally developed in Europe. I have written about the Stella Maris Homeless Shelter in Belfast, Northern Ireland and its innovative approach to serving homeless men suffering from alcoholism. In the United States, the growth of wet shelters has happened more slowly and with much debate.

In Minnesota, there are two opposing views. The St. Paul-based St. Anthony Residence states that it is a “cost-effective and compassionate housing option” that “costs less than $50 a night,” compared with other methods which might be significantly more expensive like detox shelters. William C. Moyers, a director at Hazelden addiction treatment centers in the Twin Cities area, states, “I see the wet house model as a model that enables the addict in the alcoholic to continue those destructive patterns.”

While Mr. Moyers view is popular, recent research on the approach released last year shows that residents who are allowed to drink actually drink less. “The homeless residents in the study cut the number of drinks they consumed daily by 40 percent over the course of two years in a home that did not require abstinence. Moreover, for every three months of their stay, participants consumed 8 percent fewer drinks on average on their heaviest drinking days.” According to addiction expert Stanton Peele, “Wet housing is an example of harm reduction.”

In Amsterdam, program participants have noticed successes, albeit small ones. Karel Slinger, a former visitor of the park, stated, “You come here and you are occupied and you have something to do. I can’t just sit still. I want something to do.”—John Brothers