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The Tally Ho

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Free booze

Via Damien's Spot: The Canadian Medical Association Journal just published a study that suggests free alcohol makes homeless people healthier and safer. The tiny study gave 17 participants in Ottowa a "small amount" (up to 15 glasses of wine or sherry a day) of alcohol in return for the opportunity to provide them with basic health care.
After an average of 16 months, the number of times participants got in trouble with the law had fallen 51 per cent from the three years before they joined the program, and hospital emergency room visits were down 36 per cent.

...The report showed participants in the program drank less than they did before signing up, and their sleep, hygiene, nutrition and health levels all improved.

The per capita cost of around $C771 (US $665) a month was partially offset by monthly savings of $C96 (US $82) a month in emergency services, $C150 (US $129) in hospital care and $C201 (US $173) in police services per person.


The report was unclear on whether the per capita cost included the medical care participants received, or just the costs of booze and staffing. One of the study authors warns that he "agree[s] 100 per cent that abstinence is the most appropriate route," and so forth, but that for a subset of folks who will not stop drinking this may be an effective way to provide care. I don't think it will ever really happen, since the idea of giving alcoholics more alcohol is just too counterintuitive--and to a lot of folks, immoral. But from another direction, it makes sense: people who are homeless are almost always that way because they are in crisis and can't meet their basic needs. For an addicted person, that crisis is their addiction and their basic need is their drug. If you meet that need, it stands to reason that they would have a better chance of being successful in other parts of their life.

I'd be interested to see if a control group that was somehow persuaded to spend equal time at the research location fared just as well. For the drunks outside my office, one of the unmet needs is shelter; they don't have anyplace in the neighborhood that will allow them to linger, or even come in to use the bathroom. The result is that I will occasionally find steaming piles of human shit next to my car. I'm not interested in giving anyone free booze, but since they're in the neighborhood (the cheap liquor store is two doors down from my office) it would benefit EVERYONE to meet a few of their basic needs, and it's time we started getting creative again about how to do that.

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