Free booze, beds for homeless can save taxpayer money

A University of Victoria study shows clear evidence that giving free booze and a bunk to homeless alcoholics saves taxpayers money.

A homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, Ont. offers residents a glass of white wine every 90 minutes

For the past two years, Shelter House in Thunder Bay has been offering free booze and a bunk to homeless alcoholics.

Now a study at the University of Victoria shows clear evidence that the program saves taxpayers money.

“This is definitely a solution,” said the shelter’s director, Patty Hajdu. “For communities that are looking for a way to better allocate their resources, to use their resources in a more efficient and fiscally responsible way, and to provide a better quality of life for the sickest amongst them.”

Hajdu said residents in the program are given six ounces of white wine every hour and a half.

She said they are much less likely to wind up in hospital, or jail and that saves society money in the long run.

In an interview with CBC Yukon's Sandi Coleman, Hajdu said it’s an idea decision-makers in the Yukon should take a close look at.

How it works

Shelter house runs a 15-bed supportive living program with two full-time staff members.

Each participant moves in and has their own bunk in a room shared with others. Its residents — male and female — have all been homeless for long periods of their life and have suffered severe or chronic addiction to alcohol.

Residents are offered three meals a day, and free drinks every 90 minutes, on the condition that they're in the building for the previous 60 minutes and don’t appear intoxicated.

“The intent is to stabilize people’s alcohol consumption,” said Hajdu, “and to move people from drinking non-palatable substances, like hairspray and hand sanitizer, to alcohol made for human consumption.”

Residents also have access to a doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner and a diabetes specialist through a partnership with local community health clinic.

Hajdu said the program works because people can participate without having to commit to abstinence, a paradigm that she said has shown little success, and indeed, has rarely been studied.

Jail, hospital stays down

The study found that people in the program significantly reduced their contact with police and custody by as much as 40 per cent. It also found that hospital admissions were down in the group, based on data from the five years before the study.

The study also asked people to rate their own health and found remarkable improvements.

Hajdu said people felt safer, like they had a home, and many were able to connect with family with whom ties had been severed long ago. “

“The stability of having a permanent address and better health and less intoxication allowed them to connect with children or parents or siblings.”

According to Hajdu, the cost savings and the improved quality of life speak loudly about the need to put housing first when helping people deal with addiction.

“I think we all as a society need to consider approaches to addiction and substance use that step outside the realm of abstinence. And we need to remember that housing is a basic human right and a social determinant of health.”