Features

Bunks for drunks

Politics | An experimental social-service project rewards chronic alcoholics with room and board, no strings-or help-attached

Issue: "Can't run or hide," Oct. 14, 2006

SEATTLE- Buddy Hall can hardly believe his good fortune. Nine months ago, the former fisherman from Alaska struggled to find food and shelter on the rainy streets of Seattle, his chronic alcohol addiction blocking any chance for employment. Now, the weathered 43-year-old dines on catered meals and sleeps in a brand-new apartment building conveniently located within walking distance of most major downtown attractions.

But this is no story of redemption. Hall remains among the region's most notorious drunks-in fact, his new housing depends on it. Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center spent $11.2 million of largely tax-generated revenue to construct "1811 Eastlake" and reward the area's 75 worst drunks with mostly free room and board. The rationale: Providing safe, clean living space for otherwise homeless inebriants might reduce visits to jails and emergency rooms and save public money. Whether the 70 men and five women currently living in the building stop or decrease their drinking is entirely optional.

Municipalities around the world are eyeing the experiment with keen interest, many eager to replicate the idea should its economic projections pan out. Publications throughout North America, Europe, and Australia have provided prominent media coverage. While some reports have expressed hostility to the notion of a "wet house," others have praised the plan as bold and creative.

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Philip F. Mangano, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, has visited 1811 Eastlake three times and believes every city in the country should construct a similar facility. Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has called the project "the humane thing to do."

Supporters believe the positive impacts will stretch beyond economics, perhaps providing a superior alternative to abstinence-based alcohol-recovery programs. Dr. Alan Marlatt, who directs the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, is among the academics charged with measuring the project's sociological success. "The whole idea is that if you give people housing and don't require them to stop drinking to keep the housing, they'll be more interested in getting in some kind of program or cutting back or quitting," he said.

Marlatt, author of the book Harm Reduction (Guilford Press, 1998), champions programs such as state-sponsored needle exchanges and heroin prescriptions for heroin addicts. He believes the "housing first" concept behind 1811 Eastlake could revolutionize social services by redirecting the focus onto reducing harmful consequences rather than changing bad behavior. "It's controversial, yes, but it keeps people alive," he said. "At least we're doing something."

But preliminary indications suggest the project has done little to alter behavior or reduce consequences. On a recent Friday, Hall stood on the well-manicured sidewalk outside the building's front door, wasting away the midmorning hours. Cigarette smoke and a heavy stench of liquor streamed from his mouth. "They allow drinking here; it just can't get out of hand," he said. "But people have seizures. People have died here. One friend of mine slipped in the bathtub and broke his neck."

Seven residents have died since the building opened in late December of last year, most from illnesses related to long-term alcohol abuse. As of Sept. 22, emergency responders had dispatched to 1811 Eastlake 180 times, about four or five times per week. Such numbers do not bode well for a project built on the premise of saving tax dollars.

The medical needs of residents have staggered DESC director Bill Hobson and, at times, overwhelmed the 19 full-time paid staff workers. Criminal behavior is a problem, too. "You've got to keep your door locked," Hall said as he flicked a burning cigarette butt into the street. "I forgot to lock my door, and I caught some guy inside my room trying to steal my TV-a brand new thousand-dollar TV." Nevertheless, house rules remain lax with only one resident evicted thus far for a violent outburst.

"The only rules that are hard and fast, with consequences if you violate them, have to do with littering around the building, being violent, being verbally abusive, and panhandling around the building. Everything else is more romancing people into compliance," Hobson explained. "If someone has poor hygiene, we talk to them. Maybe we offer fresh clothing and do their laundry for them. That kind of environment is more conducive to long-term change."

Unlike more traditional treatment or detoxification centers, residents at 1811 Eastlake have no limit on how long they can stay-and no conceivable incentive for graduating out of the house. The only current resident who has decided to stop drinking has no intention of leaving despite recommendations from staff members. "We're concerned about him," Hobson admitted. "It is not an environment conducive to supporting an abstinence process."

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