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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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.