Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 13, 2012

'Wet house' for homeless to drink alcohol?


TRAVERSE CITY — A so-called "wet house" might be a good way to alleviate public intoxication among the area's homeless population, proponents believe, but there are plenty of details to be ironed out first.

Several people with connections to the local homeless population formed a steering committee in an effort to open a place where homeless people can stay and drink alcohol. The house wouldn't provide alcohol, but instead would give people a spot to drink in safety and seclusion.

Supporters contend a wet house would keep the homeless safe, as they're not allowed in many shelters at certain times — or at all — if they're intoxicated. And if they have a place to drink, they might not be a visible problem in town.

A wet house is primarily targeted at severe drinkers with a greatly reduced chance of recovery.

"We've tried everything. How many more treatment centers are they going to go to? How many detoxes?" said Greg Stone, an addiction counselor who serves on the steering committee. "Right now, it's just about keeping them safe, and it's about savings for the community. Police time, emergency room time, stuff like that."

Right now, a local wet house is nothing more than an idea. How such a house would be funded and where it would be located remain up in the air. It would be a facility with up to 12 beds and likely be funded by private sources, said Harry Hubbell, a steering member. The facility would be staffed and monitored 24 hours a day.

Steering members say data from wet houses in other cities — they exist in Seattle and Minneapolis area, among other locations — suggests that alcohol consumption decreases for those who stay in a wet house. Part of that is because there's less urgency to drink whatever alcohol they have before it's lost, stolen or confiscated.

"That's what the addicts tell us, that the pressure of using that drug, of consuming it, is a big part of causing them to overdose," said Traverse City Police Sgt. Jeff O'Brien, another steering member.

If alcohol consumption drops for some who stay, the hope is they could find stable housing elsewhere.

"We know some of these people will never stop drinking, but in the right atmosphere, some of them could eventually transition to other supportive housing programs," Hubbell said.

Getting the facility up and running is the first step, Stone said.

"We need to get it open ... once we get them through the door, then we can start working with them," he said.

Traverse City Commissioner Mike Gillman, who recently pushed the city to find a way to address the homeless people who continually cause problems in public, isn't opposed to the idea. But he'd like to see data first, and doesn't believe city dollars should support such a program.

"If there's a private group who wants to explore that concept as its contribution to the good of the community, I have no objections," he said. "I don't think it's something the city ought to be funding."

Citizens who live in the area where a wet house would be located should have ample time to discuss and react to the idea before it's implemented, Gillman said.

Chuck Korn, Garfield Township supervisor, also is receptive to at least discussing the idea if the house is proposed there.

"Obviously, placing it would be difficult, but it may help in terms of the problems we're having with people camping and leaving trash in parks and creating an environment that is threatening," he said. "So I see a positive and a negative, and obviously it's going to take a whole lot more fleshing out."

Steering members said they will continue to examine the idea and hope to have a wet house open as soon as possible, ideally before winter sets in.