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January 1, San Francisco’s $5M Controversial Solution to Curb Homelessness and Addiction: Free Beer?

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San Francisco is spending a staggering $5 million a year on a “managed alcohol program.” This initiative aims to curb police calls and hospital stays related to homelessness and severe alcohol addiction. The program began during the COVID pandemic and recently came under fire after exposure on social media.

Adam Nathan, the chair of the Salvation Army San Francisco Advisory Board, described the program’s location as an old hotel in SOMA. Kegs are set up to taps, and free beer is distributed to homeless individuals diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Nathan expressed concern over the hefty price tag and the program’s operations, noting that participants can simply “walk in and grab a beer, and then another one. All day.”

Initially costing $2 million annually, the “managed alcohol program” now drains a whopping $5 million from San Francisco’s budget. According to the city’s Department of Public Health, 55 clients have been served. The program has expanded from 10 to 20 beds in a former hotel in the Tenderloin district, an area notorious for high rates of homelessness and drug use.

Shannon Smith-Bernardin, a UCSF School of Nursing professor who helped establish the controversial program, defended its purpose. She stated it aims to stabilize homeless addicts’ alcohol consumption so they don’t “binge drink or stop drinking and have seizures.” The San Francisco Fire Department also praised the program, claiming it has been an “incredibly impactful intervention” in reducing emergency service use for a “small but highly vulnerable population.”

Similar programs have been established in countries like Canada and Australia. They are typically administered by a nurse and trained support staff in facilities such as homeless shelters or transitional homes. The California Health Care Foundation explained in a 2020 article that “by prescribing limited quantities of alcohol, the model aims to prevent potentially life-threatening effects of alcohol withdrawal, such as seizures and injuries.”

However, San Francisco’s other “harm reduction” programs for drug addicts have faced criticism as well. Democratic Mayor London Breed stated in February that these initiatives are “not reducing the harm” and are “making things far worse.” A recovering heroin addict also questioned the effectiveness of these programs, telling the Chronicle, “Are we just going to manage people’s addictions with our taxpayer dollars in perpetuity forever? … I think we should be spending that money on detox and recovery.”

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