Is letting them drink working?
Residents, neighbors and experts say results are promising, but full study awaits
Thursday, April 26, 2007
By KERY MURAKAMI
A couple of years ago, Darryl and Ed were drinking partners in the alleys of Pioneer Square, gulping down bottles of 2-Eleven Reserve or vodka when they saw the cops coming.
One April afternoon, though, Darryl, 59, and Ed, 61, veterans of the Vietnam War and the streets, sat in the cafeteria of a blue, four-story, subsidized apartment building near downtown. At 1811 Eastlake, they said, their lives revolve around reruns, instead of the all-too-familiar legions of people passed out in the city’s doorways.
” ‘Law and Order.’ ‘Walker, Texas Ranger,’ ” said Darryl, who wears a do-rag and bears a slight resemblance to Hulk Hogan.
Without 1811, “we’d probably be out running a sign right now,” he said, referring to sitting on a street corner with a cardboard sign asking for money. Neither man wanted his last name used because they didn’t want their home revealed to some friends and family.
Questions remain about the project at 1811 Eastlake — an experiment being watched nationally that deals with homeless street alcoholics. And while residents, neighbors, and public health and law officials say the program’s results are promising, a study on its effectiveness isn’t expected until late this summer or fall.
Unlike homeless shelters or transitional housing programs, which bar residents from drinking, the project at 1811 Eastlake has drawn attention because the 75 street alcoholics it houses — including the most hard-core alcoholics on Seattle streets — are allowed to drink in their rooms.
Neighbors just west of Interstate 5 off Denny Way still question whether spending $1.1 million in public dollars a year on a place that does not require sobriety, implicitly says it’s OK for residents to keep drinking.
“I still don’t agree with this idea of subsidizing people to drink,” said Dave Patterson, owner of Play It Again Sports, a used-sporting goods store at Denny Way and Stewart Street.
Inside 51-year-old Andrew Miles’ studio apartment at 1811, jazz was playing on the radio.
Though meals are included in the rent — which is based on 30 percent of a resident’s income, often from disability checks — Miles whipped up pancakes for dinner on a small stove in his room.
He began drinking because of severe anxiety attacks –“I would never sleep,” he says — and used to live in a church doorway by Green Lake. He was one of the few who’d gotten sober before he moved into the housing.
On a drafting table was a drawing of the pergola at Pioneer Square. On the wall hung the cardboard sign he used to hold for panhandling — now just a decoration. In the corner, a sleeping bag, which hadn’t been unrolled for months.
The experiment at 1811 is rooted in the idea that the pull of booze is so strong, many street alcoholics refuse to go into housing if they can’t drink.
“They wouldn’t be here” if they weren’t allowed to drink, said Margaret King, supportive housing manager for the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which runs 1811, as well as a downtown shelter and several mental health and substance abuse treatment services.
To Bill Hobson, DESC’s executive director, the project at least gets people off the streets. At 1811, which opened in December 2005, there are caseworkers and a nurse, who among other things encourage people not to drink, and to take their medication for conditions such as mental illness and liver damage.
“It’s the humane thing to do,” Hobson said.
But more broadly, he said, being in better health, and not outside, keeps residents out of Harborview Medical Center’s emergency rooms, the jail and the county’s sobering center. That could save taxpayers more than the $14,660 per person in federal, state and King County money being spent on the project.
In picking residents, DESC identified those visiting the ER, the jail and sobering center the most. Hobson said 75 of the 79 people contacted agreed to live at 1811 if they’d still be allowed to drink.
No figures are available yet on whether the 75 residents are going to the emergency room as often as before. According to Seattle Fire Department statistics, medics have gone to 1811 Eastlake 222 times in 2006 and 51 times during the first three months of 2007.
However, Hobson said that before the project started ambulances were sent anyway to residents’ hangouts. Medical calls to 1811 seem to be slowing, Hobson said, perhaps because residents are in better health.
“Mainly what I’ve been seeing with patients of mine, and what I’ve heard from my colleagues about their patients, is that they are drinking less than when they were on the streets,” Sugg said. “There’s more of a chance to do preventative care. … There’s a place now where I can engage them. Before it was catch as catch can.”
“I think it’s partly from being in a much safer environment — not having to deal with being cold, eating more healthy, thinking more clearly,” she said.
Darryl served in the 173rd Airborne, and Ed in the Seabees in the late 1960s. A decade ago, they met on the streets in Seattle and bonded.
“We just looked out for each other,” said Ed, who has a long, brown beard and wears a leather hat with a wide brim. “I’d try to get him to take his (heart) medication. But he’d keep throwing it away.”
“They’d keep stealing it out of my backpack,” Darryl said. “They’ll take anything if they think they can get high off of it.”
At 1811, medications are kept behind the front desk of the building’s sparse lobby. “At 10 p.m., they’ll call you on the intercom (in his room) and remind you to take your meds,” Darryl said.
In the lobby are fliers for game nights, and AA meetings. Despite critics’ impressions, residents are encouraged to quit
The 1811 project’s progress is being watched by homeless-care groups and government agencies nationally, said Nan Roman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. “There’s a lot of interest nationally in 1811 as a potential model.”
Roman acknowledged disagreement in the treatment field. “Some view (not requiring sobriety) as enabling or giving up on people.”
“On the other hand,” she said. “It seems to me that you’re not giving up on people. When you’re trying to deal with substance issues, it intuitively seems like you’d have better luck if they have a stable place to stay.”
One issue that might keep the project from being adopted nationally is neighborhood opposition, she said. “Even siting affordable housing has become difficult around the country,” Roman said.
In 2002, 1811’s neighbors, including the Marriott Springhill Suites Hotel, Northwest Trophy and the Benaroya Co., a developer, formed the East Downtown Community Association to try to block the project in court.
But in 2003, an appeals court and later the state Supreme Court, denied opponents’ claim that DESC didn’t have the proper permits to open.
Though the owners of the trophy shop continue to oppose the project, others such as Louis Haslett, Springhill’s general manager, say they’ve encountered few problems. “They’ve kept things tight. I’ve been surprised. It keeps people off the streets. Compared to Pioneer Square, this area has had a lot less of an issue.”
And Patterson, from Play It Again Sports, said he’s been surprised by the lack of problems.
Still, Kent Angier, president and chief executive of Kauri Investments, which is planning a 16-story apartment complex at Denny Way and Yale Avenue, believes the project enables drinking.
“(Street alcoholics) make the city less desirable,” he said, adding that 1811 might affect demand for his apartments. “If there’s something a mile away of equal value, unequivocally there’s an advantage to not living next to a facility.”
But 1811 isn’t keeping him from building the development in the midst of the booming Denny Triangle and South Lake Union area.
Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said he hasn’t noticed any criminal cases stemming from 1811.
Citywide, he and Downtown Seattle Association executive director Kate Joncas said that by taking public inebriates off the street, the program has helped lower the number of crimes associated with street alcoholics, such as trespassing and failure to appear in court. Many of the failure-to-appear cases involve citations issued to the homeless for public drunkenness.
Still, Darryl and Ed suppose they’ll always drink.
They’ve been in treatment before, and they’ve never been able to stay sober.
But they said they drink less than they used to. They don’t need to drink to stay warm. And they can sip instead of downing the bottle if the police come.
P-I reporter Kery Murakami can be reached at 206-448-8131.
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