There's a controversy in my old home town of Troy NY over whether to build a "wet house" in the city's "Little Italy" neighborhood. As this article explains, a wet house provides housing for chronic alcoholics who would otherwise be homeless and, most importantly, allows them to drink on the premises. That's all you need to know to understand why some neighborhood residents, and others in the city as a whole, oppose the idea. The idea guarantees a NIMBY backlash, represented in the local paper by Troy's former mayor. You can predict all the arguments against a wet house. It will supposedly draw alkies to Troy. It will ruin the neighborhood. It's a shame to let those bums drink instead of figuring out some way to make and keep them sober. Why should those bums have things so easy? All those arguments make sense -- and I'm inferring the last one, -- but so do some arguments.
Let me argue from some personal experience. I live in Albany, and my neighborhood is already haunted by a chronic alcoholic. He's sort-of friends with other people who live in the building; sometimes they invite him in and have a good time, and sometimes they throw him out and tell me to call the cops should he show up again. He always does. He seems to think that because he has virtually if not actually lived there in the past -- as recently as this year he had some bills delivered to our building -- that our front stairs are a kind of safe harbor where he can pause in his wanderings to drink from his bagged beer cans. He's a mean drunk, filthy-mouthed, argumentative and provocative. On our multi-racial block he'll use every incorrect epithet in the book when the mood hits him. I've heard his life threatened after he called the wrong person the wrong name, but he doesn't seem to care. From what I'm told, he has a place to stay -- but he's not allowed to drink there. So he wanders the city in search of safe places to drink, staying in one place until someone chases him off or calls the cops. He gets arrested frequently but for his petty offenses he never stays long. To me he looks like the perfect candidate for a wet house, and while I understand the concerns of neighbors wherever a wet house may be established, my hunch is that people like this bum will be under more control in such a location and thus less of an annoyance, and much less of a threat, to people in the immediate neighborhood than the wanderers can be throughout a city. Perhaps they can be more effectively isolated from residential neighborhoods, but unless alcohol is delivered to them wet houses will have to be located where tenants can buy beer or booze within walking distance or on the bus line. Dumping them in the countryside is an unlikely option.
What of the moral argument against allowing alcoholics to drink? While the former mayor asks, "Who among us does not know someone who has successfully conquered such addictions?" even Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the New York Times, concedes that some "unfortunates" will never sober up and will more likely drink themselves to death. Boosters of the wet house idea claim that some tenants actually end up drinking less, while a few even quit there. That's not the object of a wet house, however. The real object seems to be twofold: first to keep the chronic drinkers from dying "under a bridge," and second to save the rest of us the trouble of dealing with them. The thing to remember, based on my experience, is that in the absence of wet houses these hard-core alcoholics won't just wander around; they'll try to impose themselves on others so they can drink without risking arrest for open containers or other offenses. Society already takes steps in many cases to force people to dry out, but it lacks the resources and will to force them to stay dry. The worst cases end up as recurring problems, draining the resources of police, emergency rooms, etc. If we can't force them to stay sober, and we can't execute them for being addicts, then what is preferable? Letting them cause trouble for other people until the moral suasion kicks in, or leaving them where they're most likely to leave the rest of us alone? The answer should be obvious, but still begs the further question: where? It has to be in the city, but the rest should be open to negotiation. I don't know enough about the situation in Troy to assume that the proposed location for the wet house is the best one, but if the city does need such a place some neighborhood -- though not necessarily a residential one -- may need to take a chance for the good of the whole community.