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Where alcoholics can drink themselves to death
Marion Hagerman, 54, is a chronic alcoholic who lives at a "wet house," a state-funded residence where he's allowed to drink.
May 6th, 2011
07:38 AM ET

Where alcoholics can drink themselves to death

Learn more about the controversial "wet house" concept for dealing with chronic alcoholics this Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET on "Sanjay Gupta, MD."

St. Paul, Minnesota (CNN) - It's been over seven years since Marion Hagerman has spoken to anyone in his family.  As he huddles behind a parked trailer on a cold early spring day, Hagerman reflects on his life, and recalls what led him to this moment.

"This is my lifestyle," says Hagerman, 54, while sneaking a swig of what he calls "wash," or mouthwash - a cheap way of getting intoxicated. "It ain't much, but this is what I have.  It sucks. "

He says he held a steady job for 20 years, before his addiction to alcohol took over his life.  Today, Hagerman lives at St. Anthony Residence in St. Paul, Minnesota, along with about 60 other late-stage alcoholics.

St. Anthony, which receives funds from the state and is operated by Catholic Charities, is known as a "wet house" because Hagerman and the others are allowed to drink on site, with some caveats - including no mouthwash.

"It's not bad. I got cable TV," Hagerman says.   "You can't drink in your room, but you can drink. You gotta do it outside."

The theory is that it's better to allow these guys to drink in a safe place than to end up on the streets and in the city's emergency rooms, jails, and detox centers.   At St. Anthony, they have access to nurses - and doctors if the situation warrants - plus on-site case managers to aid in their addiction. Ideally, St. Anthony's counselors want the residents to sober up – but they realize that there isn't a strong chance of that happening.

St. Paul isn't the only city that has a "wet house"-style residence - Seattle was one of the first cities to put this concept into practice in 2005, and Memphis is considering building one, too.

Another argument in favor of the concept is that it saves money.   Each St. Anthony's resident costs about $18,000 a year to house and feed, about $1,500 a month.  A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that if these men were out on the street, it could cost over $4,000 a month in incarceration, shelter and sobering center use, hospital-based medical services, publicly funded alcohol and drug detoxification and treatment, and emergency medical services.

But the idea of allowing alcoholics to drink is antithetic to the basic tenets of addiction counseling.

"We feel that that it's never too late, and that even if the alcoholic doesn't want help, doesn't mean that their drinking should be condoned or in any other way enabled or facilitated," says William Cope Moyers, public advocacy executive director for Hazelden addiction treatment centers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.

"I see the wet house model as a model that enables the addict in the alcoholic to continue those destructive patterns."

Moyers, who is the son of well-known journalist Bill Moyers, has chronicled his own struggle in his book, "Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption."  His opposition to the wet house concept is commonplace among addiction counselors.

St. Anthony Residence program manager Bill Hockenberger calls the wet house a "harm reduction model," instead of a treatment center.   He says by giving these men a home - men who have all gone through nearly every treatment numerous times - it gets them off the streets.

The added comfort of having a place to call home at night and the dignity that restores in the men in return, he says, leads men to drink less.

"They didn't want to be an alcoholic," he said. "A lot of them just didn't have a choice in the matter ... this provides safe secure housing for those most in need. We are in business to do the humane thing."

Hagerman, like a lot of the other St. Anthony residents, says he'd like to eventually leave and find a job. But he feels like he's stuck.

"No I don’t want to stay there, I'd like to get a goddamn  job and get the hell outta there," he says.  "Jesus Christ,  I turn 55 in September,  I'm getting old.   Who wants to hire a 55-year-old man?"

Like a lot of the residents, Hagerman's addiction to alcohol not only keeps him out of a job - it keeps him away from his family, too.

Just weeks after he learned his brother Jerry died from a heart attack, he learned that another brother, Mike, is in the hospital, dying from colon cancer.

I give him a ride to the hospital, where he visits Mike and sits down with his other brother, Ray, for the first time in seven years.

It's an awkward conversation, as Ray talks about Marion, seated next to him, as if he's not even there.

"It's like we did kind of wash our hands [of] him when our parents died," Ray says.  "We weren't going to take care of him.  I'm glad to see that he's still alive because none of us were sure if he was.  Always looked on the streets to see if I would see him somewhere."

Ray says isn't sure what a "wet house" is, but seems to be OK with the idea.

"I don’t think he's ever gonna stop drinking," Ray says.

"No, no, I'm not going to," Marion responds, as if to remind Ray he's sitting right there.  "My lifestyle keeps me alive."

"Yeah it also keeps you separated from everybody in the last years of their lives," his brother says.

The day after the visit, Mike succumbs to colon cancer.

"It's my life.  That's as far as it goes," Marion says a few days later, as he seeks to numb himself from the pain of his loss.  "I live here. Look at this?  Do you think I’m happy with this situation? No, I can't stand it. But I have nothing else to do."

Watch Sanjay Gupta MD Saturday at 4:30pm and Sunday at 7:30am ET. For the latest from Sanjay Gupta MD click here.


soundoff (888 Responses)
  1. Charlie

    Drink Tiger Blood. It's the WINNING way.

    May 9, 2011 at 06:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Steven

    AA is a cult as are all religions -look up cult in the dictionary

    May 9, 2011 at 07:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. holly

    alcoholism is most certainly not a disease it is an addiction. every person has the choice to pick up the bottle or not. i live with a 35 year old alcoholic who would rather drink then be healthy and thats a choice not something genetically in your DNA. if you make the choice not to pick up the bottle the good for you but to say its a disease is a little ridiculous. heroin use isn't a disease but its just as hard to stop doing as alcohol. everyone has a choice its not like you wake up and suddenly find yourself wanting alcohol no you consciously make the choice to pick up that bottle.

    May 9, 2011 at 09:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • christina

      If you yourself do not suffer with addiction you have no way of knowing this. It has been proven that there are genetic ties to drug/alcohol addiction. There are also environmental factors that a person has had no control over that lead the brain to urge a person to self medicate with drugs/alcohol. Be thankful your life has been kind enough to you that you have not been imprisoned by an addiction.

      January 2, 2012 at 23:49 | Report abuse |
    • BevE

      I agree with Christina. And you are wrong Holly, alcoholism is a disease not a choice, specifically it is a neurological disease. I know it's difficult to understand. I can't think of any other disease where the person appears to not to want to get better. So I can undertand the confusion. And then there is the hurt. Why won't your loved one stop drinking? Doesn't love conquer all? Love doesn't cure cancer or leukemia, love won't cure alcoholism, maybe nothing will. But please don't say it is a choice.

      June 3, 2012 at 18:40 | Report abuse |
    • M. Garner

      Holly,
      Are you overweight? If so, you are addicted to food. You have a choice to stop consuming more calories than you burn per day. See how idiotic you are? If you disagree with letting alcohol be legal (which you obviously do) then read the HISTORY of prohibition. Another question, why do you allow to let an alcoholic live with you? What good is that person doing you? Kick him out now, or are you addicted to him? Everyone has an attachment to something that seems unreasonable, even you! When you come up with the cure for addiction, then chime in, otherwise don't offer your ignorant ramblings. Another thing, learn to spell.

      December 22, 2012 at 03:30 | Report abuse |
    • Alison

      Holly, don't listen to them. Anyone who grows up with a genetic factor that makes them susceptible to alcoholism, won't be alcoholic if they simply do not pick up the bottle and find stimulation elsewhere. Many who are not "prone" still become alcoholic because it is a learned habit caused by infantile emotional states that are stunted in early life by trauma that is usually instigated by said alcoholics. Personally, they are a liability to happiness and are interminable, intolerable, selfish, narcissistic people and the second they start rationalizing, blaming, or criticizing anyone or anything other than their own infantile emotions, they need to be dropped and ignored as liabilities to your happiness and joy in life, straight into the gutter where they belong. If they decide to grow up and stop being a ball and chain liability to others and aquire a little humility, they can rejoin humanity.

      January 31, 2013 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
  4. Amanda

    This is actually one of the best ideas I've ever heard of. These guys are going to quit for any reason so why try and force them into a lifestyle they aren't prepared for and waste peoples effort and money in the mean time. This does raise an ethical question however... you're going to allow people to have a state soponsored opportunity to kill themselves?

    Too many questions..

    May 9, 2011 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Charleen York

    An adult has the right to do as they want according to the given parameters of the law, therefore they are drinking on private property, over the age of 21. I worked as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor. I firmly believe that a place like this could only truly be beneficial if there are counselors or individuals on site that are qualified to work with the individuals that are the late stages of alcoholism. The reason people drink, use drugs, develop addictions is directly do to their inability to confront the truth within themselves. Yes it may be enabling them to have such a place, but how do you fix someone that is in late stages OR early stages of any type of addiction? You can't. They have to be willing to fix themselves and be strong enough to say "I NEED help!", no one can fix them for them but them, we can only be supportive.

    May 9, 2011 at 12:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Laughing

    The same atheists railing about the evil christians running this wet house would be slapping themselves on the back with pride if this were run by an atheist group. You folks don't like God, we get it. So you run to the interwebs to make sure you get some attention by filling every thread imaginable with your anti-God rants. It is an empty life isn't it?

    Real Christianity is about peace and compassion. Deride it all you wish by using examples of failed individuals. As humans we are all failed individuals.

    May 9, 2011 at 13:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Tif

    I wish that there had been a place like this for my Father to go in the last years of his life instead of him living on the street. I would have at least had a place to visit him then. You know, recovery just isn't always an option for everyone. My Daddy's body didn't know how to operate without alcohol in it and he became violently ill when he didn't drink. The damage to his body was irreversable. If there had been a place like this for him to live maybe he wouldn't have died in a stranger's house in a different state.

    May 9, 2011 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Anon

    ok.... Has anyone noticed the fact that the man is actually drinking mouthwash?!?!

    May 9, 2011 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BevE

      End stage alcoholics will drink anything with alcohol in it, whatever they can get their hands on.

      June 3, 2012 at 18:44 | Report abuse |
  9. sumday

    "A lot of them just didn't have a choice in the matter ... " I disagree with that statement. It is pretty well known and proven that alcohol is addicitng so you knew from the day you first put that bottle to your mouth it was addicting yet you did it anyway- how in the wold is that not having a choice in the matter?

    May 9, 2011 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lavinia

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      December 27, 2011 at 04:29 | Report abuse |
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  10. Jena

    I work in St. Paul and I think this program is a good solution to an ongoing problem. I was used to seeing several of the men now housed at the St. Anthony residence on a fairly regular basis – drunk, passed out, or otherwise disruptive in the community, even during the daytime. Now that they have a place to go, they are much less of a drain. When the police find them intoxicated or causing trouble, they bring them back to St. Anthony rather than arresting them and then detoxing them at our expense so they can do it again next week. While I agree it seems counterproductive to enable their behavior, it really is a cost-effective and moral solution to a problem that has not been effectively addressed thus far. If you would like to read the complete article from the St. Paul local paper, you can find it at http://www.twincities.com/news/ci_16774107. Sad but also thought-provoking.

    May 9, 2011 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ronjon

    If alcohol causes you problems and you continue to drink – you are an alcoholic. That should get rid of 95% of you that are in the denial stage. LOL

    May 10, 2011 at 09:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob Wilson

      Another good test is to go a month without a drink. That usually gives you a good idea of where you are along the stages of addiction. If it's a serious ordeal for you and you find an excuse to not make it a full month, well, just realize the addiction doesn't get weaker with time. It gets stronger. So if you can't get free now, with all of the resources and support you have available to you, it won't be easier down the line as your resources and support dwindle. These guys are extremely lucky to have a roof over their heads and their own room. Very rare for single homeless men in particular to get any kind of support beyond a cot in a crowded room. And that includes veterans who risked their lives for their country.

      September 3, 2012 at 13:09 | Report abuse |
    • M. Garner

      Are you overweight? Why do you keep putting food in your mouth when you are not hungry? Don't you see the diseases that are caused by being overweight and eating junk food? Why do you continue this behavior? So, who is in denial? There is nobody on earth who doesn't live with some form of denial/addiction. Educating children is the best way to prevent disease. But that will cost the federal government so much money. Addiction allows government to have power over its people.

      December 22, 2012 at 03:59 | Report abuse |
  12. jessicaber

    I just saw another CNN story about wethouses on CNN's breaking news sit. Very interesting and disturbing and I do think that the church's that are running those wet houses are misguided. By the way how did tax payers get involved with paying for the Catholic church's endevors? I am a Latter Day Saint and just to be perfectly honest we believe that it is a fact that the Catholic church is satanic.

    May 11, 2011 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The Pope

      Your comment is ridiculous, all religions think other religions are "evil" or rather "satanic" as you said. But it doesn't matter at some point you will realize your are an absolute borderline idiot, and that your god and gods for that matter are a joke. Science my friend is where salvation lies. It doesn't lie in the imaginary friend of adults that they so frequently call" god, santa clause,satan or the tooth fairy" Then again, you are an indoctrinated drone, so independent critical though is something of an impossibility for you. Oh and just by the way, if the bible was the book of god, why didn't he give it to everybody and everyone?

      February 27, 2012 at 10:51 | Report abuse |
    • M. Garner

      Wethouses cost the public much less than housing drunks in jail. Somebody has to pay for people who don't have a means to earn money. You can either be robbed at your home at gunpoint, pay at minimum $25,000/year to house one person in jail, or recognize that people have vices and always will. You have at least one vice yourself. It may be costing John Q. Public more than a wethouse, so don't judge or you will be made to walk in the shoes of those you judge. You make choices for your life, and if you don't choose to live in top physical and mental condition, then you are no better than an alcoholic!!! Get off your lazy ass!!

      December 22, 2012 at 04:25 | Report abuse |
  13. Jamie

    To those of you saying that alcohol and tobacco are drugs that are legal, and kill... what about food??? The crap people put into their bodies, causing morbid obesity and heart attachts, should be illegal as well. And, what about the needle exchange programs available to the addicts that opt for an injectable drug, and not a beverage?? Is this acceptable because it lessens the probability for diseases to be spread? Any way you look at it, until you have dealt with an alcoholic, wondering where they are because it's been days/weeks since anyone has heard from them ... a wet house could be a godsend for those who have nothing else (including the families). No one complains when the government's bail out plan includes them and puts money in their pockets – why not spend money on our own people and help those in need in the US, rather than sending all of our resources overseas or sending another stimulus check for you to spend on things that do NOT matter??? Wake up people – if we were building wet houses in other countries, you'd be donating your money to help save the alcoholics of some third world nation... but you look down your noses when it happens here, at home, our country!

    May 12, 2011 at 08:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. jessicaber

    Jamie, I 100% agree with your comment about the stimulus check. Although, I am a single mom with a 5 year old and I am on social security income so it was very helpful to us. I thought. The program itself though I thought got too much hype. I do not have any alcoholics in my family so I do not know what you are going though although my father may be a dry drunk. He claims to be an aloholic, but he has not drank anything alcoholic in 20 years. He has major mood swings. He punch me in the stomach when I was a teenager. He jumped me when I was a young adult for no reason. Today he hung up on me with out saying good bye for no reason. Sadly, he is just a very strange man like that.

    May 12, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Smoke

    I wish I had known about a place like this a year ago. My husband was a chronic alcoholic that was never going to stop drinking. The final year of his life, spent here at home was a living hell for both of us. At least at a "wet house" like this he could have gotten the appropriate kind of care which I, because of many factors, could not provide. It's not likely he would have lived longer, but perhaps his death could have been more dignified than it was. That God for the people providing this service and I hope the concept spreads.

    October 30, 2011 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. August

    The 12-step religious AA/NA cult's "One-Size-Fits-All" treatment model has failed tens of millions, including 3 of my family memebers who are dead after numerous 12-step treatments; if the "Higher Power" was real it would not fail anybody!

    December 9, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. August

    The BEST TREATMENT MODEL for all human issues are REAL HOUSING, REAL TRAINING, and REAL JOBS!

    They have got to stop labeling these people crazy, addicted, and alcoholics FOR LIFE; that's just nonsense!

    December 9, 2011 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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    We have had Link up and going now for 5 days. All data trasnfers have taken place and apart from a missing invoice download, network rejection of half a return. We have placed a call on monday to ask POS about the problem so once that is sorted I will again blog about how we are doing.

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