San Francisco's homeless czar pushes for 'wet houses'


The proposal is modeled after Seattle's.

Anthony Bennett is an alcoholic. "My drive and my ambition is to wake up in the morning, be able to open my refrigerator and have a beer. That's my drive, that's my ambition, and I guess that's how I see my future," he says. Although, Bennett is no longer homeless. He lives in one of Seattle's so-called "wet houses," homeless shelters where residents are allowed to drink under the supervision of addiction counselors.

The alcohol is purchased by the shelter using a portion of the resident's public assistance checks. "People fall less. People end up drinking less. They're warmer. They're safer. They're in a community where people are looking out for them," clinical support specialist Hector Herrera says. The idea is starting to catch on with cities across the country considering similar wet house programs like San Francisco where shelters are currently "clean and sober."

The concept is one of the first proposals being considered by San Francisco's first-ever, newly-appointed homeless czar. "I think a lot of Americans who visit here say, 'Wow, San Francisco has a homeless problem,' and what I say is pretty much everyone who lives here or visits here becomes an expert on homelessness. You see what isn't working," San Francisco Homeless Director Bevan Dufty says.

San Francisco spends millions annually dealing with ambulance and police calls for a few hundred of the city's most chronic public drunks. "We do have to look at people that are repeat, repeat, repeat offenders and say that we're spending inordinate amounts of money citing these people, releasing them, doing these things. And, if there's a way to wrap services around the front end of the justice system, I think that we can help people in a more meaningful fashion," Dufty says.

The Seattle program launched in 2006 and is considered a success by most because almost all residents cut their drinking significantly. Bennett says he now drinks about 12 beers a day compared to two or three times that amount when he lived on the streets. "In a way, I look at it like this: You take the bums off the street, it kind of cleans the street up," he says.

Still, Bennett says this will likely be his last home. "Believe it or not, I'm probably going to end up passing away over here like a lot of my friends. I've seen about 21 guys die over here, but better them dying here than dying out there on the street," he says.

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