July 5, 2006
Homeless Alcoholics Receive a Permanent Place to Live, and Drink
By JESSICA KOWAL
SEATTLE, June 30 — Rodney Littlebear was a homeless drunk who for 15 years ran up the public tab with trips to jail, homeless shelters and emergency rooms.
He now has a brand-new, government-financed apartment where he can drink as much as he wants. It is part of a first-in-the-nation experiment to ease the torment of drug and alcohol addiction while saving taxpayers' money.
Last year, King County created a list of 200 "chronic public inebriates" in the Seattle region who had cost the most to round up and care for. Seventy-five were offered permanent homes in a new apartment building known by its address, 1811 Eastlake.
Each had been a street drunk for several years and had failed at least six efforts at sobriety. In a controversial acknowledgment of their addiction, the residents — 70 men and 5 women — can drink in their rooms. They do not have to promise to drink less, attend Alcoholics Anonymous or go to church.
"They woke me up in detox and told me they were going to move me in," said Mr. Littlebear, 37, who has had a series of strokes and uses a walker. "When I got here, I said, 'Oh boy, this don't look like no treatment center.' "
These are the "unsympathetic homeless" who beg, drink, urinate and vomit in public — and they are probably the most difficult to get off the streets, said Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the nonprofit group that owns 1811 Eastlake.
In 2003, the public spent $50,000, on average, for each of 40 homeless alcoholics found most often at the jail, the sobering center and the public Harborview Medical Center, said Amnon Shoenfeld, director of King County's division of mental health and chemical abuse.
Mr. Hobson's group expected the annual cost for each new resident of 1811 Eastlake to be $13,000, or a total of $950,000. It cost $11.2 million to build and is paid for entirely by the City of Seattle and county, state and federal governments.
The actual price tag will probably rise because residents have more serious health problems than expected, said Margaret King, a social worker who manages the building. Many have heart ailments, cirrhosis, diabetes, head injuries from falling on sidewalks and severe circulation problems. Four residents have already died, including one who moved in with late-stage liver cancer.
The building's critics are particularly incensed that residents do not have to stay sober. The Seattle Times, in 2004, editorialized that government should insist that the residents quit drinking in order to live there.
"Bunks for drunks — it's a living monument to failed social policy," said John Carlson, a conservative radio talk show host here. This approach, he said, is "aiding and abetting someone's self-destruction."
Drink they do. When residents are shuttled to supermarkets for groceries, Ms. King said, they often buy wine or beer, which is sold in this state alongside the milk, eggs and orange juice.
Like Mr. Littlebear, Howard Hunt, 41, moved in the first day. Homeless since 1999, Mr. Hunt said he drank a daily bottle of whiskey before he came to 1811 Eastlake. He has epilepsy and walks with crutches because he fractured his hip.
He shrugged when asked about the policy allowing him to drink in his new home. "We're going to drink somewhere," Mr. Hunt said.
Influential Bush administration officials have come to support this project, including the on-site drinking. John Meyers, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's regional office here, said he blanched when he learned that his agency had pledged $2 million for it. He now calls 1811 Eastlake "a glorious experiment."
"It's a lot cheaper having them spend the night at 1811 than at the E.R. or at the drunk tank," Mr. Meyers said.
Philip F. Mangano, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, said there should be a similar building in every city in the country.
These apartments fit into the "housing first" philosophy, newly adopted by many cities, intended to give permanent housing and intensive services to long-term homeless people. Local officials have already approved other buildings for the mentally ill and people with chronic medical conditions, said Adrienne Quinn, director of Seattle's Housing Office.
Though it would be unthinkable for a market-rate apartment building in this booming city, 1811 Eastlake's front door is across the street from busy Interstate 5, on the edge of downtown. The Starbucks around the corner donates pastries, but Robb Anderson, 43, an owner of the trophy shop next door to the apartments, complained bitterly about paramedics' 120 visits in just six months.
The building's atmosphere during a recent daytime visit was more convalescent home than rowdy dorm. A few men in the television room stared silently at a World Cup match, while others wearing backpacks trudged through the front door and into the communal kitchen for apple fritters and coffee.
A third of the residents, including Mr. Littlebear, are American Indian; an estimated 20 percent are military veterans. The average age is 45. Most receive state or federal disability payments, and all residents pay 30 percent of their income as rent under HUD's guideline for low-income housing.
By choice or if they need frequent medical attention, 26 residents live on the first floor in office-sized cubicles with a bed, desk, dresser and small refrigerator. These communal living areas have a strong scent of body odor.
Upstairs, 49 people have private studio apartments with a single bed, bath and kitchen. For many, this normal existence is a huge adjustment. One man continues to sleep on the floor next to his bed, and another refused sheets in favor of his sleeping bag, Ms. King said.
Their quality of life, drinking and use of public services are being studied by researchers at the University of Washington. Ms. King said the alcohol intake of the residents was shockingly high at first, but many residents say they now drink less, at least by their standards.
"I cut down," Mr. Littlebear said. "I've got to save my liver."