Problem drinkers get new lease on life

This article was in today’s Home News Tribune.

Problem drinkers get new lease on life
Home News Tribune Online 06/19/07


SEATTLE — When Brian Steik lived on the streets, the government spent tens of thousands of dollars on emergency room visits and other services to keep the alcoholic alive.

Now social-service agencies are conducting an experiment: Offering Steik and dozens of other homeless drinkers subsidized apartments where they can keep boozing at a fraction of the cost.

“The average citizen who hears about this project probably is appalled,” said Bill Hobson, executive director of the city’s Downtown Emergency Services Center, which constructed the apartments.

“Their concern runs something along these lines: “Why do I want to spend my tax money on people who are not doing anything to help themselves?’ The answer to that is: You’re already spending it.”

The four-story, $11.2 million building is one of few such facilities in the nation. Minneapolis has a similar program.

The Seattle apartments were built with taxpayer and privately donated dollars. The center expects to spend about $11,000 per resident to operate the building each year, less than 10 percent of the money chronic drunks would cost if left on the streets. Preliminary figures suggest the building will pay for itself in less than five years.

Before moving into an apartment, the 40-year-old Steik was a frequent visitor to the Seattle Sobering Center, a nonprofit agency where police bring homeless alcoholics to dry out. He spent 700 nights there in 2 1/2 years.

“I had a place to live every night as long as I was intoxicated enough,” Steik said.

At the apartment building, residents pay less than $200 a month in rent and must buy their own alcohol. Seventy-five people live there, with more waiting to get in.

Residents are selected by social-service providers who agree on a list of the worst alcoholics. Once in, they can stay for the rest of their lives as long as they follow a few rules focusing mostly on avoiding violence.

On a recent visit to the building, a big sunny dining room was half-full of residents in various stages of intoxication. The air smelled slightly of alcohol, but there were no cans or bottles around.

Residents usually drink in their small studio apartments. Some have smaller cubicles with three walls and just enough room for a bed, a freestanding closet and a chair.

Some residents say the program has helped cut their drinking in half; one person claims to have quit drinking entirely.

The Metropolitan Improvement District reports alcohol activity on the downtown streets has been cut in half. Human-service agencies report their contact with downtown drunks has been reduced by 56 percent.

But the program still has its skeptics.

Police Sgt. Paul Gracy acknowledges it may save money at the emergency room, but officers continue to pick up drunks all over town.

The 75 residents represent a “minuscule” portion of the alcoholics on the streets, Gracy said. “We still have to deal with these people.”

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