SEATTLE - Seventy-five of the city’s most down-and-out homeless alcoholics are off the streets and living in a bold new development by the nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC).
“The project very intentionally set out to serve the hardest-core street alcoholics,” said Bill Hobson, DESC executive director.
These are people who have been living and drinking on the streets for years. They’ve failed attempts at sobriety and have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each year in emergency room, court, jail, and other expenses.
Located near downtown, the blue-and-gray building known as 1811 Eastlake is different because of the extreme population it houses. It is also unique because it doesn’t require residents to be sober. They can drink in their rooms. “It meets people where they currently are,” Hobson said. “It doesn’t mean you approve of them as they are, but you accept them.”
Alcohol may be allowed, but that doesn’t mean it is encouraged. Residents have access to a wide array of programs and services, including alcohol and drug treatment.
Still, the $11.2 million development has been controversial and the focus of a failed lawsuit. Hobson, however, pointed out that a key downtown business group supported the project.
One compelling reason some people got behind it is the potential cost savings to the public. One study found that homeless individuals consume an average of about $42,000 per person a year in emergency services, and that amount is even higher for homeless alcoholics, said Hobson. The operating budget of 1811 Eastlake is $950,000. In other words, it will cost about $14,000 a year to house a resident. Residents pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent.
The 1811 Eastlake development “was, and in some regards, continues to be a controversial project,” said Adrienne Quinn, director of the Seattle Office of Housing. “The city funded 1811 because we have seen clearly that providing sobering or medical services to chronic public inebriates, who are released from the sobering center to sleep on the street, just does not work.”
Providing immediate housing with on-site services has been a more successful approach she said, adding that “the upside of the risk in funding 1811 is that we will actually be able to make a difference in the lives of people who have been homeless for decades, the city streets will not be someone’s bedroom or bathroom, and we will save the citizens money by investing in supportive housing rather than hospital stays and jail.”
There are other supportive housing developments in the nation that allow residents to drink, but few target such a hard-core group.
Armed with a 2004 list of the most-costly users of the emergency room, jail, and other services, a team hit the streets in 2005 to find these individuals and talk with them about moving into 1811 Eastlake. Right off the bat, fieldworkers found that four of the top people on the list were dead, said Hobson.
The team continued down the list to get its 75 residents. Hobson said fieldworkers only needed to speak to 79 people to get the first group of tenants, who moved in at the end of 2005. There are 70 men and five women living in the facility.
It’s a population that’s taken a beating over the years, and many suffer from health problems. Seven residents have died since moving into the development. Two were asked to leave, and two others “disappeared,” meaning officials do not know where they went, according to Hobson.
The program has also had its successes. Two residents have moved on to other housing. Three residents have been sober for three months or more. Four people have started working again, and almost all of the residents are taking part in the programs.
There are also some compelling anecdotal reports. One man who had been in the emergency room 66 times in the five months prior to moving into the facility reportedly has had only three visits since getting a room, according to observers.
The development was financed with low-income housing tax credits, which provided approximately $5 million in equity. Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., was the tax credit syndicator. Other financial support came from the city of Seattle Office of Housing, the state Housing Trust Fund, King County, the Federal Home Loan Bank, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.