Philosophy

Would you give an addict a drink?

Is this man an addict? Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

This week I wrote about gutter punks and train jumpers, and I mentioned that on Thanksgiving I gave out sandwiches, $20 bills and bottles of booze to the homeless.

I knew this story might anger some people. Whenever confronted with a chance to help a human being, a disturbing number of people refuse to give a dollar because that hurting human being might buy alcohol. I have absolutely no tolerance for this attitude, and had no reservations about confessing my booze-donor past.

But my trusty mentor Ken critiqued my donation from a different, more compassionate angle. He asked:

“What percentage of those kids do you think are addicts?”

This made me think. I had considered my actions as spreading holiday cheer, not enabling addicts—even though I can’t deny that some percentage of homeless people are certainly drunks. Let me explain some of my mental arithmetic.

If you’re not from New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine the level to which alcohol saturates the culture. Bars are open (legally) 24 hours a day, every day of the year. (Except during the Bayou Classic, but that’s a long story.) Alcohol is consumed casually in the morning or afternoon, especially on a festival day (which can be once a week or more) and is woven into both business and hospitality. For NOLA, it’s like the 1970′s never ended.

So there’s no shame about a New Orleans bum asking for a beer. Many will skip the formality of requesting money at all. Cardboard signs may say “I won’t lie, I want a drink.” This feeds on—and into—the dark, cynical humor that New Orleanians love, and the idea of going without a drink on a holiday is as horrific as the idea of going without turkey.

So in the environment where I handed out 375 mL bottles to the homeless, nothing and no one gave me pause on moral grounds. Reactions from friends ranged from applauding my generosity to simply thinking it was funny.

Reactions from the recipients were more unilateral. Someone would ask us for change or a dollar, and we’d slowly open a bag and reach in. As the bottle came out they couldn’t believe we were serious, and gave out shouts of love and gratitude. Bums can get a good meal at any shelter on Thanksgiving, but it’s hard to get the wine.

I came away from the experience feeling good about what I’d done. I viewed it as truly making the day of a couple dozen people on the street… in a pretty unique way.

But Ken introduced the idea that these same people may be hopeless alcoholics, and that my apparent goodwill simply fueled a disease. I can’t deny his point: if I know someone’s an alcoholic, I won’t buy them a drink. How was this different?

I think the answer depends on two things:

  1. How many of the recipients are alcoholics?
  2. Is it ever right to give alcohol to an addict?

Both are hard to answer. When Ken asked how many young train jumpers are addicts, my initial response was “almost all of them.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that they drink heavily and frequently, almost without exception; but they’re mostly in their early twenties. College kids also drink heavily and frequently, and the majority of them are not alcoholics.

For the homeless more broadly, I think it’s almost impossible to know offhand how many are be addicts. I would expect a higher percentage of alcoholics among the homeless (alcoholism ain’t great for the old career), but I don’t really know if we’re talking 10% or 80%.

The second question is likely “no,” but with a footnote. When someone is suffering for numerous reasons—cold, hunger, injuries, lack of love—giving them something that makes them feel immediately better, for a short while, may have some merit. I don’t have the means to solve any of the long-term problems afflicting a homeless person, and denying them booze won’t cure their addiction; but I do have the power to make one day a lot less painful. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

The next time I go out to give alms, I think I’ll follow Ken’s lead. Even though I view alcohol as a welcome and not-unethical gift, I could take that same money and put it into supplying more food, or buying blankets or gloves, and offer those instead. These may get less shouts and cheers, but they may also do a lot more long-term good.

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19 thoughts on “Would you give an addict a drink?

  1. You know, I’d never really thought about this before. Generally the reason I don’t give money to the homeless is because as a rule I don’t have any money period, though when I do and I can, I try to give at least a little bit. The area I live in takes a very dim view of giving the homeless money which they can use to buy booze, so most people buy them food outright.

    But your article got me thinking in a lot of ways about the hypocrisy in this. Most people trying to help homeless people tend to treat them like they are less than children, with absolutely no self control, so you have to buy what you think they need. While it is true that some homeless would go and use that money to get drugs or booze…they’re going to do that anyways if they’re addicted. And if a random person, homeless or not asked for a cigarette rather than a drink, how many people would deny them (assuming they had a cig?). If the homeless person said “I’m going to use this to get a pack of cigs” I doubt anyone would care, but we get all up in arms about them getting booze, which has been a fundamental part of human society since we discovered the magic of the brewery. Hel, workers used to get paid in beer, the primary way of getting people to come to church was to give them a pint, etc.

    Society complains that bums do nothing but spend their money on booze…but no one seems to care that greatly about the alcoholic who can cover his tab, or at least they don’t look at him as harshly. Sure, by giving alcohol you’ve helped feed a man’s addiction, but giving him a sampler bottle probably isn’t going to hurt anything than a moral guardian’s morals, and sure it will make the repentance want more to drink but….they were going to want that anyways. I’ve noticed that a big reason for the stinginess is a kind of possession “They’re just going to go buy booze/drugs with my money if I give it to them and that makes me responsible, so I won’t help.” As if by dent of being better off, and therefore better, the person has to take the moral high-ground the homeless person presumably can’t.

    I’m not telling you to back to shilling out booze, but remember the joy in those faces when you gave them a tiny bottle. You treated them like a person, like a member of NO culture and society, who could be respected and trusted with the gift of Bacchus. You took someone who has been cast out of society, treated like a child, and denied a large place in the culture like they were a part of it again. Sure, maybe they lost their place by their own hand, or these days more likely by the hand of a government which seems intent on not making things work, and for a few brief moments, a few small sips, like part of society again. Because we have to remember, the demographic of who is homeless has shifted drastically in the last four years. It’s not just addicts and vets who couldn’t make it, vast swaths of the homeless are people who just a few years ago had jobs, homes, families, and success, but watched as they lost everything in the depression we’re in. Our attitudes have to change because the people have changed. That bottle you hand out might not be going to an addict who lost everything to his addiction…but rather a man or woman who did everything right in their life, but for cruel fate, now is looked at like they’re little better than an animal.

    • These are all really good points Lucius. In particular, you’re right about the joy on their faces… and treating them like a human being who can make their own choices. While it may be wrong to give alcohol to an addict, it also seems wrong to assume an entire class of people are addicts.

  2. I too could easily judge you for handing out alcohol to possible alcoholics; I’m not going too. I feel that your heart was in the right place (attempting to spread some celebrately cheer to others without means). If I read your article correctly, you weren’t just handing out alcohol alone but food and money as well. I’ve never been to New Orleans but I’m very familiar with French Canadian culture. Alcohol (along with food) is very important in any kind of celebration. If you want to help the homeless on a continual basis, maybe just handing out food would be a better option in the future. At this particluar time, you were trying to make everyone feel as you and your friends’ felt, being thankful, warm to one another and inclusive during a time of celebration, regardless of the state of one’s personal life.

  3. I used to sometimes keep cheap brownies or packaged cookies on me and give them to the Dinkytown sidewalk fairies (my favorite term for gutterpunks). Those were greeted with a lot of delight, too, especially when it was cold.

    • I’ve also given homeless people beer, or money when they had a sign up saying “Please help, I’m dry”. And once or twice I’ve been on the other side of it, and been awfully happy when other young and broke people shared their beer with me when I couldn’t afford my own.

      • That’s exactly how I imagine I’d feel. It’s certainly how I felt when a host would offer me a beer after a long day of bicycling…. thanks for that, by the way :]

    • It’s funny, I stopped giving homeless people food after bad experiences in Milwaukee… they didn’t seem to trust it. However, the fact that you were using packaged food probably makes it a lot more trustable.

  4. Jim Peterson says:

    I think for any gift to be clean, there can be no strings attached. If I give someone on a corner a buck or two, it’s absolutely NONE of my business what they do with it. I’m assuming their life might be a little better if I share my surplus with them, so if I have cash on me, I never miss a chance to give them a buck or two. We’re both part of the same community. I’m also rather fond of how Islam approaches charity. IIRC, it’s only 2-1/2% but it’s NOT to be used to build temples or shrines and IS to be given directly from the giver to the recipient — no middle man. So many problems begin when we think we have some *right* to project our own morality onto others. If I’m an addict and alcohol is my drug of choice, I could trade whatever you give me for booze anyway. For far too many addicts in our culture, FOOD is their drug of choice. Shall we give them no food either? Better to share whatever we feel like sharing and let those who would be critical of it get over their bad selves.

  5. I was inspired and made happy by your previous post, thinking of how much you brought joy to those young people – whether or not it was bad for them. I’m torn on this issue. I give money to homeless people when asked, and I don’t judge over what they’re going to spend it on, because it’s not my role to keep them from all harm. They’ve already been fucked over by society, and they’re already mistreated and oppressed on a daily basis. Whatever little thing I can do to help, I will. Not judging.

  6. Alien Mind Girl says:

    I, too, have been raised with, “don’t give them money, they’ll buy booze” and also “don’t give them money, they probably go home to a nice house and just don’t want to work.” Both are heavy assumptions that I don’t usually think about very much. But since we are…

    I think people often place a double standard on what “alcoholic” means. For example, if someone with a job has a six-pack per day, they are an alcoholic. But if someone without a job gets five bucks and uses it to buy his only bottle for the week, he’s an alcoholic because he didn’t get groceries with it. Kind of stuck up, if you think about it, and also to realize… if someone is *truly* down on their luck, they probably don’t have enough money to be an alcoholic in the “people with jobs” sense of the word because alcohol is expensive. So you give them booze. How much do you think they had this week, or last week? Probably not an excessive amount.

    Then there are other things, as you mentioned, it makes folks feel better. Strong alcohol warms you if it is only moderately cold outside, and if you have no shelter that temporary relief is probably a godsend.

    And I can’t but help remember that in my younger years one of my close relatives was (in my eyes) an alcoholic – usually tipsy at the very least. I despised it; it made me furious. As an adult, I realize they were drunk because this person had a longterm undiagnosed chronic disease that made life very painful, and until they got a proper diagnosis and real medical attention, alcohol was the only way they could feel like a person. Now they rarely drink at all. My life would have been better and the family may have had less heartache if this person had been sober, but looking back, they did what they felt they had to do. I don’t hold it against them. I might have done the same, who knows. You never know what a person is going through, or why they do what they do. Sometimes (like in the situation I described) they don’t know themselves.

    However it is also true that there is more lasting nutrition and warmth in blankets and sandwiches.

    I agree on all counts and appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me for examining assumptions I usually take for granted.

  7. I second that statement. Having worked for several years with homeless, chronic inebriates, alcohol withdrawal is quite deadly. We kept emergency beers for folks in that state, per a nurse’s insistence, in order to save their lives.

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