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.
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."
Instead, the environment enables alcoholism, laziness, and other antisocial behavior. Hobson denied WORLD's request to tour the facility, but disheveled beds and unkempt living quarters are clearly visible through the many open windows facing a nearby elevated street.
Robb Anderson, co-owner of Northwest Trophy next door, says the incidence of public urination and defecation in the alley behind his shop has greatly increased since the new tenants arrived. He is fed up with paramedics' trucks and police cars blocking his limited customer parking almost daily. He'd like to move but doesn't believe he could receive fair market value for his land. "Littering, passing out, throwing up, blocking my driveway, it's bad for business," he said.
Many of Anderson's customers now prefer to receive products by shipment instead of visiting the store. "I eat those costs," he said. "It's frustrating." The Seattle Police Department recently assigned a specific officer to respond directly to Northwest Trophy's concerns-yet another unforeseen expense for the project.
Elias Alfi, owner of the nearest neighborhood grocery two blocks south, says the influx of alcoholics to the area has helped his business by spiking sales of wine and beer. But he's also noticed more frequent panhandling and recently had to restrain an 1811 Eastlake resident from assaulting a customer. "Most of them are behaving themselves, but a few are not," he said. "We've had to put some in jail for theft."
Residents have reason to avoid seeking regular employment, since rent is adjusted on a sliding scale depending on reported income. With room and board covered, tenants can acquire more than enough alcohol money from panhandling alone. That's the life plan of Jim Samson, who is thrilled to do his drinking indoors after two decades on the street. He appreciates the building's absence of any stigma against drunkenness. "If you're going to drink, they encourage you to go to your room and drink," he said of the staff workers. "They treat you with respect."
Samson, 42, says he knows he needs treatment for his addiction to alcohol but has not taken any steps in that direction since moving into 1811 Eastlake. His memory is foggy as to just how long ago that was. Hall, likewise, admits his need for help but has not yet sought any: "I've always wanted to quit drinking. It's not the answer, but it helps you forget the question."
Hobson hopes that a sense of gratitude will inspire Samson, Hall, and others to begin making better choices. The "housing first" concept assumes alcoholism results from the external forces of homelessness and life pressure. It seeks to remove those forces and thereby cure the disease. Little to no focus is placed on altering the internal forces of the human heart. "We've got to stop dealing with alcoholics in a strict, heavy-handed way where we provide a house but no alcohol is permitted inside," Hobson said. "This is a more rational way of dealing with this population."
Hobson believes cold-turkey abstinence approaches are unrealistic and ineffective for the most hard-core alcohol abusers. But throughout Seattle and most major cities in the country, private rescue missions successfully oversee the recovery of seemingly hopeless street drunks on a regular basis-most often with zero-tolerance policies and zero public funding.