In a counter-intuitive approach, a homeless shelter is giving free wine to its alcoholic residents.
This might seem counter-productive, but meeting these individuals' immediate needs allows them to then focus on procuring services such as medical and mental health support, Kim van Herk, a nurse at the Oaks, told the news outlet.
“They are so dependent on alcohol that it’s their most basic need,” she said. “If that need is not being met, nothing else matters for them. But once that need is met, they can start looking at other parts of their life.”
It's a harm reduction strategy much like those behind supervised heroin injection: By making it possible for heroin users to inject the drug under the supervision of a nurse, you can regulate intake, prevent fatal overdose, and offer people battling addiction the social services and drug treatment they need to recover long term.
About one in five homeless people have a chronic substance use disorder, and around the same proportion struggle with mental health, according to the U.S. Department of Health.
The Oaks, run by nonprofits Shepherds of Good Hope and Inner City Health, houses close to 50 people at a time struggling with alcoholism, according to their website. Beyond shelter, the residents have 24-hour staff support, a nurse on-site 40 hours a week, and weekly rounds by medical and mental health professionals.
The program seems to be having some success: Research by a Canadian doctor found most participants' health and hygiene improved, and some even stopped drinking entirely, according to the Vancouver Sun. Residents who used to make frequent visits to the emergency room and were picked up often by police, also saw these harmful occurrences decrease dramatically.
"Before this, there were times I couldn't even remember what I did the next day," an Oaks resident told the news outlet in 2011. "If it wasn't for this program, I wouldn't be alive."
While most homeless shelters require residents to be substance-free, a "wet" shelter in Seattle houses homeless people with chronic alcoholism and lets them drink on the premises. Over two years, they succeeded in reducing residents’ consumption from an average of 20 drinks a day to 12.
“We’re just focused on the fact that people living with addictions and mental health issues aren’t going to get any better if they are living outside,” Greg Jensen, the director of a similar program in Seattle, told the Huffington Post last year. “If we can bring them inside, they’re closer to getting services that they need; we’d be in a better position to help them.”