National Catholic Register


St. Anthony Wet House: Cruel Or Kind?

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 4/14/11 at 7:00 AM


In a program themed, “Know when to fold ‘em,” This American Life recently ran a story about the St. Anthony Residence in Minnesota. It’s something I’ve never heard of: a “wet house” for alcoholics. It’s not a rehab facility or a prison or a halfway house—it’s a place where hardened alcoholics can drink in safety and privacy. They are not treated, or expected to try to stop drinking. According to a story in

The St. Anthony model accepts the obvious — that a certain number of alcoholics are indeed hopeless, said Katie Tuione, program manager at Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, a homeless shelter.

“This is about meeting people where they are and loving them. It’s not rocket science,” she said. “They still grieve, love and hurt. They still need food and shelter. They are you and I.”

Dr. Steven Miles, professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota, agreed.

The reason to support St. Anthony is not the money saved but the kindness extended to the residents. “It is the humanity of it, just like humanity drives the hospice system,” he said.

He said seeing people drink themselves to death is like watching chemotherapy patients gathering outside hospitals to smoke.

“Certainly no one encourages them to do this. But this is a society where people get to make their own choices, however bad they are,” Miles said. St. Anthony’s, he said, “is a rational response to meeting people’s needs.”

The approach, manager Hockenberger said, isn’t treatment at all, but a “harm-reduction model.”

I’m not sure what to think about this. I often speak about how wrong it is to send people a message of hopelessness: I rail against Planned Parenthood’s one-note drone of contraception and abortion, without giving women the message that their lives worth more than mere “harm-reduction.” And this stunning piece by Calah Alexander shows that, given half a chance, addicted people can rise to the occasion and reclaim their lives when challenged.

But on the other hand, I’ve seen life-long alcoholics—guys who’ve been drinking for so long that the choice has been made long ago, it seems—and the St. Anthony approach seems refreshingly honest, even compassionate. Some guys have been alcoholics so long that, whether they’re drunk or sober, drunks are who they are. Some are lucky enough to have long-suffering families who can keep them physically safe—but others cannot or will not stop drinking, and the alternative to facilities like these is not rehab—it’s a tunnel or a park bench. A wet house like St. Anthony is a place where they can go to be undisturbed, at least retaining the dignity of making their own choice to drink. They don’t have to chug their booze for fear that their fellow residents will steal it; the bottles are kept under lock and key, and can be signed out on request, to be drunk on the patio outside.

What do you think? Do you have any experience with a facility like this—or with an alcoholic who, after many failed attempts at rehab, really did turn his life around? Would a place like this have made it worse? Or is it a necessary, even humane response to a terrible human problem that doesn’t always have a solution?