S.F. program gives homeless people free booze. Here’s why the city says it’s helpful

For a small slice of San Francisco’s homeless population that struggles with severe alcohol addiction, nurses offer treatment not in a pill, but in a shot of vodka or a glass of beer. 

It may sound counterintuitive, experts say, but it helps keep people off the streets and out of emergency rooms, jails — or the morgue.  

San Francisco set up a “managed alcohol program” four years ago as a way to care for vulnerable homeless people who drank excessive amounts of alcohol and were among the city’s highest users of emergency services. 

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Since its creation, the program, which started out with 10 beds, has served 55 clients, according to officials from the Department of Public Health. The now 20-bed program, which costs about $5 million per year, operates out of a former hotel in the heart of the Tenderloin. Nurses dispense regimented doses of vodka and beer to participants at certain times of day based on care plans. 

Such programs don’t focus on sobriety, experts say, but rather on improving participants’ overall health while decreasing hospital stays and calls to police.

But the city’s efforts came under scrutiny this week, after the chair of the board of a local nonprofit that pushes abstinence shared posts on social media accusing the city of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a program that gives booze to homeless people struggling with alcohol addiction.

Adam Nathan, the CEO of an AI company and chair of the Salvation Army San Francisco’s advisory board, said on X that “providing free drugs to drug addicts doesn’t solve their problems. It just stretches them out. Where’s the recovery in all of this?” 

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