Bottoms Up! Is Change Possible?

When it comes to controlling alcoholism among the homeless, one Seattle group is charting new territory. Last December, the Downtown Emergency Services Center opened a highly controversial facility, known as 1811 Eastlake, in order to house seventy-five of the city's most inebriated homeless.

Taxpayers had grown weary of shelling out up to $50,000 a year per homeless citizen to pay for visits to the emergency room, jail, and recovery facilities. So, the city decided to redirect some of its funds — over $11 million to be exact — toward permanent housing for these hard-core alcoholics.

But here's the catch — residents are allowed to drink to their heart's content! While 1811 does not discourage sobriety, it does not require its residents to enroll in any sort of recovery program. Bill Hobson, the program's executive director, says that the community needs to face the so-called "fact" that the most chronically intoxicated will likely remain that way. Hobson offers an example of a resident who was drunk ten minutes after spending sixty days in a detox facility. Referring to the worst drunks like this, he says, "Once you're an alcoholic, you're always an alcoholic."

Well, the reasoning goes, if an alcoholic can't change, instead of racking up taxpayer dollars to pay for jail cells and treatment, why not fund less expensive housing? Just keep them off the streets.

It might be cheaper, but it's also immoral. You see, the idea that people can't change is the result of a naturalistic, deterministic worldview. If people are truly the result of random evolution and their environment, and only the fit can survive, then indeed, homeless drunks don't have a chance. Give them a bottle, wish them well, and just keep them out of trouble.

But Christians know better. In thirty years of prison ministry, I've witnessed time and time again the transformation of the most incorrigibly hardened criminals imaginable — drug addicts and alcoholics among them. And believe me, it costs taxpayers far less to promote the transformation of prisoners than to simply warehouse them and hope they won't return to a life of crime. That's why six states have now welcomed the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (or IFI), a faith-based program launched by Prison Fellowship, which has proven to drastically reduce recidivism among prisoners.

Ironically, as many of you know, a federal judge has ordered the IFI program in Iowa shut down, charging that it violates the separation of church and state — this, while taxpayers in Washington state are financing a homeless shelter that practically enables addictive behavior all to save, so they say, a few dollars.

But so much more is at stake than taxpayer dollars. Hope is. The director of 1811 Eastlake says that we need to face the reality that some people will never change. Well, he's wrong. Any society that just writes off a class of persons can someday put groups of people gently to sleep. The Nazis proved that so.

As Christians, we know that hardened criminals can be radically transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ. We don't write off anybody, including so-called "chronic inebriates."

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