Alcoholism and Homelessness

I have often reflected that many homeless folk (I reckon one third) have an “alcohol problem” and a number are alcoholic and need some alcohol intake to merely to get through a day. It does create issues, particularly for those of us who run “dry shelters”, given our experience is that many, maybe most, who do present who are under the influence of alcohol are problematic if let in, and while it is not a decision any of us want to make, the greater good is served by turning them away (with a sleeping bag and food if appropriate).


While lack of appropriate accommodation is my number one concern when it comes to meeting the needs of homeless folk, close behind are life issues that prevent them moving on. While drugs are an issue, it is nowhere near as great as alcohol, especially since “Legal Highs” have been made illegal. This was brought home to me a couple of days back when I was managing my own night shelter. I had to turn away four people under the influence of alcohol. With three of them, they were only mildly inebriated and, after telling them to go for a walk for an hour and come back hopefully sobered up, that is what happened and there were no problems after letting in. With the fourth, besides being argumentative, he was in my view too far gone to be let in and while he was not happy with the decision given his own vulnerability etc. or with my explanation why I couldn’t let him in, I felt sadly it was right to refuse him admission.

Part of the Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) scheme operating in the four “worst” months weather wise, is for a report to be written after each session, summarizing what went on, which is then circulated to the other managers. The last one highlighted the case of “an old friend” who had to leave because he was drunk. This was particularly sad for me as I have known this person for getting on for three years and during which time he was a notorious drunkard, although other than that he was a nice fellow. In the last couple of months when I come across him, he was off the alcohol, looking good and doing paid work. Things were looking up for this guy, or so I thought, until I read the report, which sadly highlighted what has become a too often reoccurring theme of falling off the wagon.

Those involved at the coal face when it comes to homeless folk will soon find out that working among homeless folk, while a noble enterprise, can be distressing. Many seem to make little or no progress. Some like our friend make progress and then regress. A few though do get to that better place we want for all our homeless friends. All we can do is the little we can do. Showing human kindness is invariably always a good thing. When it comes to alcohol, despite organizations that help those with alcohol issues, and rehabilitation centres that manage just that, too many folk with an alcohol issue long carry on in that state, aided by cheap alcohol, easily available. The irony is that which gives relief from being on the streets and other hardships, also prevents people moving on.

I can’t help thinking about William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. His solution was to save the souls of alcoholics and anyone else come to that and whisk them off to the country under a regime of structured days, meaningful activity, pastoral support and tough love. There are 21st century equivalents but not here in Southend to my knowledge. Is the Lord saying something I wonder?


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