Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 17, 2012

Editorial: 'Wet house' backers must get details right


---- — At first glance the idea of a "wet house," where homeless people can go to drink alcohol in a warm, dry place and stay the night, looks absurd.

Why give people who have major alcohol and addiction problems a place where they can drink up and feed their addiction? These people don't need enablers.

A second look at the idea, however, brings a disturbing thought: This might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Backers of the wet house idea say that since many shelters don't let homeless individuals stay if they're intoxicated, a wet house can keep homeless drinkers safe and off the streets. Given the recent focus on making the homeless less visible in downtown, that's probably a good thing.

And this is hardly an enabling situation, advocates say. 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 a wet house 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."

Not to mention avoiding situations where individuals feel threatened or intimidated by panhandlers or other individuals who have been drinking or taking drugs.

But even if area residents get comfortable with the idea, locating a place to put one and paying for it are even bigger hurdles.

Finding a building out in the sticks with no neighbors to disturb is one way, but that could defeat the purpose. What's the point of having a safe house if no one can get to it? The homeless generally don't have transportation. And who is going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a drinking house for the homeless?

Members of a steering committee formed to work on the idea say data from wet houses in other cities suggests alcohol consumption actually decreases because there's less urgency for individuals to immediately drink what they've got before it's lost or stolen. A wet house would not provide booze, but would allow individuals to bring it with them.

Backers say they would like to have a facility with up to 12 beds open before the snow flies. The house would be staffed and monitored 24 hours a day.

But the details won't be easy: Where should it go? Who will keep the peace? And who will pick up the tab?

Answers must come first.