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December 13, 2010 / Candice

Minnesota’s ‘wet houses’, fiscally and morally right?

One of my favorite quotes is from Jason Lewis, Minnesota guy and syndicated talk show host: “Let’s be blunt here–we are not a family with legal obligations to support one another. We are a nation of free individuals whose only hope in getting along lies in respecting the rights of our neighbors–including those who simply wish to be left alone.” Over the weekend when I read “They drink more, and you pay less.” in the early edition of the Sunday Pioneer Press, I couldn’t help but think of that quote.

The story was the last in a three-part series by Bob Shaw on the four “wet houses” in Minnesota, located in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Duluth. A wet house is basically “hospice for alcoholics”, allowing men, who have been alcoholics for a long time, a place to drink themselves to death, literally. They get a room, which is a 12 by 12 concrete “cell”, with a bed. They’re free to come and go as they please. They can drink beer, mouthwash and cheap whiskey as much as they’d like. They even get a nurse to help care for them. There’s not a 12-step program they’re forced to follow, there’s no preachy counselor, just 60 alcoholics in a building, a few staff and a nurse.

Some might think it’s a terrible thing, “Just put a roof over their head and let them kill themselves with booze?!” The thing to keep in mind is, these are guys, many of them are in their 50’s or older, who have been alcoholics nearly all their lives, they’re homeless, jobless and have made the choice to continue to drink. They’ve been in and out of jail, rehab, hospitals, detox, all at the expense of taxpayers in Minnesota. One man, Wayne Britton, 59, has cost taxpayers about $1.5 million and his “rap sheet” includes 12 DWI convictions.

But while the drinking binges continue for Britton and the 59 other alcoholics at St. Anthony, the spending binges have ended. The St. Paul “wet house” is slashing the public’s financial burden for those men by more than 80 percent — saving about $5 million a year.

The “wet houses” cost about $18,000 per year, per person, to run. The St. Anthony wet house is paid for by Ramsey County, St. Paul, Catholic Charities and the state of Minnesota. If you think $18,000 a year is a lot to spend on someone who is going to die anyway, look at the facts.

The worst alcoholics cost the public an average of $100,000 a year, according to St. Anthony Residence manager Bill Hockenberger.

That’s a whole heap of cash. But the men of the wet houses, cost a fraction of that. They’re not going to jail, or making frivolous trips to the emergency room and they’re not going to detox just to have a bed to sleep in. The men who live in the St. Anthony house also have their monthly welfare payments cut by more than half to $89 per month when they move in. Furthermore, they’re not hurting anyone by drinking and driving, as most have sold their cars to buy booze. They’re not begging for money on the corner, they’re not stealing or stumbling around on the streets.

Consider Marion Hagerman. In his 39 years of drinking, the 54-year-old has been arrested about 60 times. He has kept drinking despite six drunken-driving convictions and six 28-day treatment sessions.

His drinking has cost the public more than $450,000. And since he was admitted to St. Anthony’s two years ago?

Nothing. Not a single arrest, detox stay or emergency-room visit.

It’s not that he’s turned his life around — he still drinks mouthwash, which he stashes in a nearby Dumpster. But he has drastically cut his cost to the public.

“I use to stumble around and make a fool of myself outside,” said Hagerman, as he relit a day-old cigarette butt in his bare room. “But now I go home and do it here.”

Aside from the cost, the other thing to consider is, these are guys who have given up trying to get help. They’ve done all the court ordered 12-step programs, gone through rehab half a dozen times and they still make the choice to drink because it’s become more than just a habit, it’s who they are.

“Treatment is a bunch of B.S.,” snapped Ricky Isaac, a three-year resident, as he drank a beer on the center’s drinking patio.

“Those AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) people make me sick. I hate hearing about other people’s problems. I have my own problems. If you want to quit, you quit on your own.”

They rebel against the chirpy optimism of abstinence-based programs: Try harder. Pray. Ask for help. Don’t give up. We feel your pain.

In contrast, St. Anthony feels like Death Row. The message is refreshingly grim: Everyone is going to keep drinking, it’s probably going to kill them, and no one’s going to talk them out of it.

“It’s just so honest here,” Hockenberger said. “I ask someone, ‘Have you had a drink today?’ and they say: ‘Definitely! I wish I had some more!’ “

I’m supportive of the idea of alleviating the cost to the taxpayer by still allowing these men to live the lives they choose. The alternative is pushing them back on the streets and heaping the enormous costs onto the backs of the already over-burdened taxpayer. These guys aren’t going to change, in fact, throwing more money at them and pushing them through failed treatment programs is down right futile. Look at someone like Paul Schiller, 53, from “The men of the wet house” (Emphasis is mine.)

Schiller has been in St. Anthony for seven months. He is a relative late-comer to alcoholism, starting his heavy drinking five years ago.

A high school dropout, he worked as a truck driver and then in a machine shop. For years, though, he’s been unable to find a job.

“I am not looking for work. It gets you too depressed,” said Schiller, who has reddish splotches on his face and wears a Miller Lite beer cap.

Schiller has been through treatment twice, without making a dent in his drinking habit. He simply didn’t want to stop, and he says he never will.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” he said.

Last winter, his home was under a bridge on Payne Avenue in St. Paul.

“Winters are rough. I cover my tent with blankets,” he said. “Some days I would come back and the blankets would be gone.”

Drinking is just something he does, without thinking about it much.

“I didn’t think I had a problem, even when I was homeless,” he said.

Schiller has been to various county detox units 10 times. He said he has not been to the emergency room “except once, for a suicide attempt.”

Schiller said he has been in 13 traffic accidents involving alcohol, but only two of those were with him driving — drunk both times. He has had one DWI, he said.

But he has shown it’s possible to be a drunken driver even without a car. Last fall he was riding a bike while drunk, crashed and broke his shoulder.

He has no plans to leave St. Anthony. In fact, he has no plans of any kind.

“I am going to stay here forever, yes. It is better than the bridge,” Schiller said. “And the bridge is better than Dorothy Day.”

Cross-posted at True North.

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