Homeless Shelter Will Start Requiring Sobriety

By Kelly Burch 11/14/18

Under the new policy, anyone who appears intoxicated or has alcohol on their breath will not be allowed in.

men sitting on their beds inside of a shelter that requires sobriety

A Montana homeless shelter will begin turning away people who are using drugs and/or alcohol, reversing its previous policy and highlighting the issues that homeless people with substance use disorder face as they try to find shelter during the winter months. 

According to The Billings Gazette, the Montana Rescue Mission in downtown Billings will no longer allow people who have been using drugs and/or alcohol to stay inside during “code blue” night, when it is particularly cold or snowy and people on the street could be at risk.

Previously, the Mission would accept anyone who wasn’t very drunk—it had a policy of refusing people with a blood alcohol level higher than 0.2%. Under the new policy, anyone who appears intoxicated or has alcohol on their breath will not be allowed in. 

"The only change we've made is we expect to them to be sober," said Perry Roberts, executive director of the Mission. “We just decided [on the change] in order to maintain peace.”

Individuals who are turned away will be referred to the nearby Community Crisis Center, a facility that only has room for 45 people and has already begun filling up on cold nights this year. 

"It really does create a capacity issue," said MarCee Neary, the Crisis Center's program director. 

The Montana Rescue Mission provides two separate long-term shelters: one for men and one for women and children, in addition to the code blue openings. Participants in those programs are required to be sober, and Roberts said that having people around who are abusing drugs or alcohol could be triggering for them and compromise the progress that they have made while at the shelter.

"Our purpose, our mission is we're trying to transform lives," he said.   

In addition, Roberts pointed out that the staff at the shelter are not able to provide the support that intoxicated people might need.

"We don't have medically trained staff," he said. "We don't have a professional security guard.”

The conversation around the policy change at the Mission reflects a wider discussion about providing shelter to people with substance use disorder.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, about two-thirds of people who are chronically homeless have a primary substance use disorder. Shelters often have different requirements for their residents, from total sobriety to not using drugs or alcohol on site. There are also some wet shelters that let homeless people drink. 

In 2015, a Connecticut homeless shelter opted to close down rather than accept people who were using drugs or alcohol, according to NPR.

"The organization lacks the staff and funding to supervise active alcohol- and drug-abusers overnight... and there are concerns about the safety of the two people—a staff member and a volunteer—who manage the place each night,” the shelter said at the time. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.