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Homeless in San Francisco: Free Booze Stations

Saving lives or prolonging addiction?

Alcoholics Anonymous, get outta town. The city of San Francisco is offering free booze to the homeless with alcohol addiction. This is not a treatment and recovery program but a new pilot to keep the homeless off the streets while relieving the burdens on the city’s emergency services, according to officials. While it has had some success in the Golden Gate City and other countries, critics claim it’s just supporting addictions and risking lives.

Homeless Get Free Booze

The Managed Alcohol Program (MAP) gives doses of alcohol to homeless volunteers with addictions. The idea is that doing so will help people manage their consumption while making sure they get enough booze so that they don’t have withdrawals.

In 2020, the California Health Care Foundation released an article describing the program’s goals: “Established in countries such as Canada and Australia, a managed alcohol program is usually administered by a nurse and trained support staff in a facility such as a homeless shelter or transitional or permanent home, and is one method to minimize harm for those with alcohol use disorder.” The article continued, “By prescribing limited quantities of alcohol, the model aims to prevent potentially life-threatening effects of alcohol withdrawal, such as seizures and injuries.”

Homeless in the program get a motel room, three meals a day, and enough alcohol “to meet their addiction needs, but keeping someone at a safe level of intoxication,” Alice Moughamian, nurse manager of MAP and the San Francisco Sobering Center, explained in October.

The program was started during the COVID pandemic so that those isolated in hotel rooms would not suffer from alcohol withdrawal. It started out with ten beds but has now expanded to 20, located in a hotel in the Tenderloin district, one of the worst areas for homelessness, drug use, and crime. The city has a $5 million budget for this program.

City officials claim the pilot program has already saved $1.7 million during a six-month period in reduced hospital visits and emergency calls from individuals who previously used the services on a regular basis. “Officials said that after clients entered the program, visits to the city’s sobering center dropped 92%, emergency room visits declined more than 70%, and EMS calls and hospital visits were both cut in half,” Fox News reported.

Critics, however, claim the city should be focusing on treatment plans instead of feeding alcoholics more liquor. Adam Nathan, chair of the Salvation Army San Francisco, reportedly visited the hotel several times and posted on social media what he found: “Inside the lobby, they had a kegs [sic] set up to taps where they were basically giving out free beer to the homeless who’ve been identified with AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder). It’s set up so people in the program just walk in and grab a beer, and then another one. All day. The whole thing is very odd to me and just doesn’t feel right. Providing free drugs to drug addicts doesn’t solve their problems. It just stretches them out. Where’s the recovery in all this?”

In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, public health officials argued Nathan’s claims were misleading, saying the alcohol is given by a nurse and only homeless people in the program can receive the booze. They added that the hotel does have a bar, but on-site taps are “inoperable and unused.”

Mayor London Breed, who is up for re-election in November, does not approve of the program and said it is “making things far worse.”  And Tom Wolf, who is in recovery for heroin addiction, told the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Are we just going to manage people’s addictions with our taxpayer dollars in perpetuity forever? It seems like that’s basically what we’re saying. I think we should be spending that money on detox and recovery.”

Recovery, however, is not the point, according to Moughamian, who in October explained, “Our goal at MAP is not to decrease the amount of alcohol that is consumed, or to taper someone towards abstinence, although both of these things have happened with clients in our program. The goal is to mitigate the many health, legal and interpersonal harms associated with unsafe alcohol use.”

Does giving addicts free access to their vices really work? In Seattle, WA, lawmakers supported safe consumption sites for drug use, but the project has fizzled out. “Now the region is the deadliest drug epidemic Seattle’s ever seen,” The Seattle Times reported in December. “More than 1,200 people have died from overdose in King County this year, a record number that has tripled over the past four years.”

The Times said the sites have worked to reduce people dying from overdose, but it does nothing to help the addiction. San Francisco’s pilot program for the homeless comes with a $5 million taxpayer-funded price tag and may or may not be saving the city money, but it does nothing to address the addiction. Instead, it gives people free room and board, food, and as much alcohol as they need to go another day.


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