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Study: Housing Helps Homeless Alcoholics Drink Less

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File photo of alcohol bottles. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/DolceGabbana/Getty Images)

File photo of alcohol bottles. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/DolceGabbana/Getty Images)

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SEATTLE (AP) — An innovative program that takes homeless alcoholics off the street and gives them a place to live without requiring them to quit drinking has led residents to dramatically decrease their drinking as well as ease problems related to their addiction, new research has found.

The study found residents of the Seattle apartment building cut their heavy drinking by 35 percent and their everyday drinking by about 50 percent during their first two years in the building. They also had fewer instances of delirium tremens, a life-threatening form of alcohol withdrawal.

Researchers found the 95 formerly homeless men and women decreased the number of drinks they consumed on their heaviest drinking days from 40 to 26 over two years. The median number of drinks dropped from 22 to 11 drinks during a typical drinking day.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is part of a series of scientific examinations of the “housing first” approach to helping homeless people by putting them in permanent housing with supportive services instead of requiring them to stop drinking and taking drugs to earn their shelter.

“The data are accumulating and can no longer be ignored,” said Susan Collins, a University of Washington research assistant professor, who was the lead author on the most recent study.

Collins said one of the most significant findings was that people’s drinking didn’t just drop the minute they moved in, but exhibited a downward trend that appears likely to have continued after the research period.

“The alcohol trajectories are on a downward, pretty even slope, across the board,” she said, adding that the program is apparently meeting its goal of harm reduction.

Collins found the results similar to what she expected after getting to know some of the residents during the study. She noted that others involved in clinical psychology research expressed skepticism before the study was completed and some colleagues said she shouldn’t bother trying to prove her hypothesis.

“Chronic homeless people are human beings who are equally capable of making positive choices if given a chance,” she said.

The next step would be a double blind study that looks at both people in housing and those in other kinds of treatment or on the street.

Collins said there was an attempt made during this study to follow people still living on the street but on a waiting list for housing, but during the research period most of them got into housing.

An earlier study from the same group of University of Washington researchers found the program was saving taxpayers more than $4 million a year in emergency social and health programs.

The results of the most recent study were not surprising to the people who run the 1811 Westlake Building, said Daniel Malone, director of housing programs for the Downtown Emergency Service Center. He is listed as a co-author on this report.

Malone said they were glad to see that the trend toward less drinking is gradual and continues to improve over time.

“In keeping with our general view, when helping people with very long-term problems of a very significant nature, the switch doesn’t just turn off,” he said.

The agency now has eight buildings offering supportive housing for people with mental illness and addictions. Most residents need a lot of time to improve after living with their problems for years.

“They don’t just move into housing and start tending to a flower box on the window sill and invite people to tea,” Malone said.

The statistics concerning how much the residents still drink was a little jarring, he acknowledged, but said the decrease is still wonderful to see. Malone said the report points to the need for continued support to help these people address their problems.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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