Study shows 'drunk housing' cuts drinking


POSTED: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 3:36pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - 3:56pm

An experimental place where hardcore alcoholics can live and drink at taxpayer expense has been a lighting rod of controversy in Seattle, Washington since it opened, but new evidence from a university study may quiet some critics.

Cecil West is an unrepentant alcoholic.

He's lived 18 hard years on the streets and is now battling cancer, but he still hasn't put the bottle down.

"All depends on how much money I got," he says when asked how much he drinks.

West is one of 95 chronic "street drunks" who are part of the experiment called 1811 Eastlake.

For six years, the City of Seattle has provided them a permanent place to live with the agreement that they're allowed to drink as much as they want.

West says that isn't all that goes on there.

"All kinds of crazy things. Pill popping, heroin. Whatever," he says.

The people who live here will tell you that what's happens inside isn't always pretty, but researchers now say it is apparently working.

"There are all kinds of reasons why drinking is as part of survival on the streets," says Dr. Susan Collins of Harborview Medical Center.

Scientists at the University of Washington collected data over two years from the residents of 1811.

They challenged the widespread assumption that people would drink even more here, but the numbers tell a different story.

"Participants in our study decreased both their alcohol use and their experience of alcohol related problems," says Collins.

The average number of drinks per day fell nearly by half, from 20 to 12.

Researchers believe it's mainly a function of having a stable place to live.

"On the streets often you drink to stay warm. You might have to drink to the point of intoxication that they let you into the sobering center where they let you in to sleep it off. Or you might drink to forget you're on the streets," says Collins.

A separate study by the University of Washington found that housing homeless alcoholics cut the cost to taxpayers for police, medical and social services by 50 percent.

As for West, he says he drinks just as much as he ever has, but he's thankful he has a warm safe place to do it.

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