Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seattle shelter for alcoholics opens

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – Seventy-five chronic alcoholics will no longer have to choose between drinking and shelter.

A new apartment building to serve this chronically homeless population opened Thursday after years of lawsuits, protests and construction delays.

The 1811 Eastlake Building, at the northeast edge of downtown Seattle, will be one of only a few places in the country to welcome these people inside without requiring them to stop drinking first.

Homeless alcoholics are by far the most expensive homeless population to serve – they are the most frequent homeless hospital visitors – and that’s one of the main reasons this idea of giving them housing first and counseling second is slowly catching on.

“Every academic journal article I’ve read over the last five years has shown it’s cheaper to house them than leave them on the streets,” said Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which fought for more than five years to build the $11.2 million, four-story housing project.

Economic reality has trumped compassion in this case. A 1999 King County study of 123 chronic public inebriates found they cost society more than $100,000 a person in emergency room costs alone. The 1811 building will cost about $11,000 a resident per year to operate with round-the-clock staffing.

Eligible residents – with at least 15 years of chronic alcohol addiction and multiple, failed attempts at publicly funded treatment – will be sought with the help of King County records and are expected to start moving in just after Christmas.

Hobson said he didn’t expect anyone to knock on his door asking to live in the new apartments.

“This is a population that has pretty much given up hope for housing,” he said.

Staff at an open house for the facility said word is getting around and people in the target population have expressed excitement and interest to agency social workers.

Hobson estimated there are about 500 chronic alcoholics living on Seattle streets or in shelters, plus 2,000 people with chronic mental illness. His agency targets these most difficult to serve populations with about 300 shelter beds, four other permanent apartment buildings and various individual apartments around the city. The agency also offers mental health and addiction counseling.

Daniel Malone, director of housing programs for the center, said its facilities house a total of 421 people, all with substance abuse problems or mental illness.

A similar project in Minneapolis has two apartment buildings for chronic alcoholics. Impact studies of that program found hospital visits declined 20 percent and most of the residents’ medical care was not alcohol related.

The new building was built with its future residents in mind. Smoke detectors have special timers to make sure cigarette smoke clears as expected. Ovens have 30-minute shut-off timers. Each room has an intercom, both for seeking help and so staff can reach the residents. All hallways and public spaces are monitored by video cameras.

Residents will have to sign a traditional lease and pay 30 percent of their income, including Social Security, for rent. Those without income will pay no rent.

The small, bright, linoleum-tiled studio apartments are sparsely furnished and have their own kitchens and bathrooms. Bathrooms have floor drains for easy cleanup. Some windows have Space Needle and mountain views.

Raising money for the new building took less time and possibly less effort than fighting the legal challenges from neighboring businesses and real estate developers.

Ten percent of the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s $14 million budget comes from foundations, businesses and individual donors. The rest, including most of the money to build this new project, comes from government grants.