California Homeless Shelter: New Drug and Alcohol Policy

In San Luis Obispo County in west-central California, the organisation responsible for providing most services to the homeless has decided to adopt a new drug and alcohol policy from June 1. The Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO) has decided to begin turning away drug and alcohol users from their shelters.

The change affects two County shelters that provide service to roughly 200 individuals per night. In most cases, those individuals come to one of the two shelters for their dinner and a place to sleep. However, officials now say they will no longer serve people who are persistent drug and alcohol abusers. They will be turned away if they fail a sobriety test or test positive for drugs.

CAPSLO deputy director Grace McIntosh estimates that roughly 12% of the clients they serve will no longer to be able to access services once the change goes into effect. Where they go after being turned away from the shelters is anyone’s guess. The county is looking at two options:

  • Referrals – The most likely option in the short term is to refer clients who fail the drug and alcohol tests to other facilities that provide addiction detox in addition to food and shelter. There are a number of such facilities in and around the county. 
  • In-House Services – A second option, which is currently being explored, is the possibility of building detox centres at both of the homeless shelters. Clients who need the help would be welcome to undergo detox and, upon completion, be eligible to be served by the shelters again. 

McIntosh says the change in plans is not designed to punish homeless people dealing with drug and alcohol issues. Ultimately, the goal is to help such people overcome their addictive behaviours. Nevertheless, as things stand now, the shelters are simply not equipped to handle the food and shelter needs combined with the types of care drug and alcohol addicts need. CAPSLO has decided that it needs to focus on its core mission.

No Easy Choice

Trying to choose between helping homeless people and going further to help those who are homeless due to a drug or alcohol problem is not easy. There is a fine line between helping and enabling. The decision made by San Luis Obispo County most likely came after a long period of evaluation, consultation, and soul-searching. In the end, everyone involved hopes the decision is the right one.

It is unfortunate, but a significant number of homeless shelter users are chronic alcohol and drug users as well. Organisations like CAPSLO are constantly dealing with the reality that providing food and shelter may be enabling drug and alcohol addicts by making it too easy to remain addicted. By the same token, it is difficult to turn people away when they need food and a place to sleep.

There are no easy answers to such troubling dilemmas. The best we can do, here in the UK or in the United States, is to offer as much help as we can while still being vigilant to not enable addictive behaviour. Sometimes we succeed; other times we fail. However, we cannot ever stop trying.

If CAPSLO is eventually able to build detox units alongside its homeless shelters, it will at least be able to do something about drug and alcohol addiction in the short term. There is no guarantee those it helps will not relapse in the future, but it is a risk that needs to be taken. It is well worth the trouble if even a small percentage of those who go through detox are able to remain clean permanently.

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