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Shelters That Allow Drinking Could Benefit Taxpayers

April 1, 2009

A study published on Tuesday demonstrates how a program that provides shelter to homeless alcoholics - but allows them to keep drinking and not be forced into treatment – could save taxpayers millions in public costs, Reuters reported.

It also noted that those who stayed at the shelter dropped their daily alcohol consumption by 2 percent per month.

The study followed 95 people admitted to the Housing First program in Seattle from 2005 to 2007. Those in the program were compared with others who were still on the street and on waiting lists to get into the shelter.

Mary Larimer, the leader of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, said the results show that homeless alcoholics who qualify to take part in Housing First can stay out of jails and hospital emergency rooms, thereby reducing taxpayer costs.

Larimer also said the benefits increase over time and that they are possible without requiring that participants stop drinking.

“And yet, the longer the participants stay in the housing program, the less they drink,” she added.

The researchers said that after a year in the shelter the total public costs relating to the care of the 95 individuals was cut by more than $4 million compared to the previous year.

The team showed that before entering the program, those who got into the shelter had run up more than $4,000 each per month in costs for jail, detox center use, hospital-based medical services, publicly funded alcohol and drug programs and emergency medical services.

Once they entered the housing arrangement, however, their individual monthly costs for using such services fell to $1,492 after six months and to $958 after a year. The researchers said it amounted to a reduction of more than $4 million in total costs.

“Each of them had cost state and local governments an average of $86,062 per year before being housed, compared to an average of $13,440 it costs per person per year to administer the housing program,” said Larimer.

A number of cities across the country employ the Housing First concept to generally address the needs of the homeless. But the National Alliance to End Homelessness said the programs rely on a mix of private and public funding.

These programs so far have generally been used for homeless people with severe mental illness and concurrent substance abuse, the report said.

The study also noted the controversy of such shelters, like the 1811 Eastlake shelter in Seattle, where drinking is allowed on the premises in a program where meals, shelter and other cost ran $1,120 per person monthly.

The median number of drinks for participants started at 15.7 a day but fell to 14, 12 and 10 a day at after six, nine and 12 months, respectively.

The stable housing environment is a factor in reduced drinking, according to William Hobson, executive director of the group that runs the Seattle project.

He added there also were discussions of the problem with residents, which leads to reassessment of drinking.

The report was published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

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