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Bunks For Drunks
Even if you're a total grinch who hates the poor, you have to admit it makes sense to give people preventive health care. Dollars and cents, at the very least. The same goes for helping homeless addicts -- helping them into housing, for example.

A lot of people would rather leave the homeless addicts in the gutter as punishment for their thumbing their noses at the Puritan work ethic and all the rest. It turns out it costs more to do that than to warehouse them and let them drink. Seattle realized that, and built a drunk bunk. Jessica Koval writes for The New York Times:

Rodney Littlebear was a homeless drunk who for 15 years ran up the public tab with trips to jail, homeless shelters and emergency rooms.

He now has a brand-new, government-financed apartment where he can drink as much as he wants. It is part of a first-in-the-nation experiment to ease the torment of drug and alcohol addiction while saving taxpayers' money.

Last year, King County created a list of 200 "chronic public inebriates" in the Seattle region who had cost the most to round up and care for. Seventy-five were offered permanent homes in a new apartment building known by its address, 1811 Eastlake.

Each had been a street drunk for several years and had failed at least six efforts at sobriety. In a controversial acknowledgment of their addiction, the residents — 70 men and 5 women — can drink in their rooms. They do not have to promise to drink less, attend Alcoholics Anonymous or go to church.

"They woke me up in detox and told me they were going to move me in," said Mr. Littlebear, 37, who has had a series of strokes and uses a walker. "When I got here, I said, 'Oh boy, this don't look like no treatment center.' "

These are the "unsympathetic homeless" who beg, drink, urinate and vomit in public — and they are probably the most difficult to get off the streets, said Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the nonprofit group that owns 1811 Eastlake.

In 2003, the public spent $50,000, on average, for each of 40 homeless alcoholics found most often at the jail, the sobering center and the public Harborview Medical Center, said Amnon Shoenfeld, director of King County's division of mental health and chemical abuse.

Mr. Hobson's group expected the annual cost for each new resident of 1811 Eastlake to be $13,000, or a total of $950,000. It cost $11.2 million to build and is paid for entirely by the City of Seattle and county, state and federal governments.

Posted by aalkon at July 8, 2006 10:45 AM

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On the HBO series, "The Wire", they did a whole story line about setting up an abandoned part of Baltimore as a "free zone" for drugs. People could use, buy, sell drugs anywhere within the borders of that zone (nicknamed Amsterdam) without being hassled by the police, provided there was no violence. If were caught using/buying/selling outside that zone, they'd go to jail. In the story, it got the drug traffic out of the other neighborhoods, (and allowed long-time residents to reclaim their streets) lowered the crime and murder rates in that district, and provided a concentrated area where free clinics could set up outreach programs to test for HIV, distribute clean needles, etc. It was a win/win, until the Mayor's office got word and shut the whole thing down.

It was really a brilliant story line, both in how the idea would work, and in how public officials would feel compelled to react against it.

Posted by: deja pseu at July 8, 2006 7:53 AM

I recently heard Mitch Katz, the director of the San Francisco health dept, talk about a new residential program that 1) DOES have sobriety as one of its objectives but that 2) DOESN'T make abstinence from booze or drugs a prerequisite for getting into the program. Mitch thinks that getting off the streets is the first step in helping someone clean up his/her life (I don't think the program's been up and running long enough to provide evidence of this yet, though). Apparently, in the past, the approach was to try to rehab folks while they were still bouncing around shelters and soup kitchens (and alleyways, shooting galleries, etc).

There are obviously no easy or clear answers to this problem, and there are no hard and fast indicators to measure the success of a program. But I'm optimistic about cost savings quoted in this article. I think the people who owned property or worked at businesses on the streets where these folks were begging, vomiting, urinating, etc could also be asked to provide some subjective estimate of how much their quality of life has improved because of this program. Perhaps there's been an increase in legal economic activity since cleaning up the streets.

Posted by: Bleeding Heart Lena at July 8, 2006 8:54 AM

So, what happens when an enterprising person pretends to be a souse, and gets a free apartment? Do they do breathe tests?

Posted by: KateCoe at July 8, 2006 9:22 AM

Trying to sweep things under the carpet or even deny they exist, never has been a good policy for the simple reason you cannot control them. Germany legalised prostitution and it worked - legalise crime and it would work for the state too (not just for those taking backhanders now). Burying your head in the sand means you never know what danger you're in until it kicks you up the backside. The only way to really deal with anything is admit it exists and control it.

Deja Psue and Bleeding Heart Lena make good points. What throws people over the edge is hounding them to death. Treat the whole thing as no big deal, get things out in the open and let this society grow up, instead of drowning in hypocrisy: Go to Church on Sunday - shoot your neighbour on Monday.

Posted by: paigetheoracle at July 8, 2006 10:42 AM

Any competent executive must find ways to make things work or the front office goes "Next !"

When politicians are busy fielding ideologically based criticism, we must somehow remember that Job One is to do things that work : that does mean the biggest bang for the buck BTW.
Often it is as important to make what is being done effective as it is to choose what is to be done.
Often I find myself characterized as a "leftie" on the blogs south of the border, which I find an absolute hoot as I have received as much or more feedback as a hopeless conservative and/or romantic.
Mother couldn't be more conservative if she tried, but still passed on a quip from an American sociologist speaking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, some years back.
"In the States, we spend much more on social action than you do in Canada. We just call it jail."

Posted by: opit at July 8, 2006 12:40 PM

I think I may be on the side of the conservative talk show host who called this "aiding and abetting". Having financed one of these individuals for the last 5 years, I can say that every effort my wife and I made to give her daughter a nice shelter and better life ended miserably, simply because she has made the choice, yes choice, to live like a ghetto whore.

We offered her paid college, which she never attended. We provided 4 condos/nice apartments for her to live in, and she trashed each one by turning it into a crack den. She turned away from a decent marriage and an upper middle class life to go live with the ganstas, shooting up and eventually created a drug addicted baby boy with a convicted felon. (We adopted the baby, who at age 2 is now thriving in a home with two loving parents.)

Bottom line is that many of these people live as they choose to, and while society may save tax dollars on these particular individuals, the underlying message is that society will step in and provide a comfortable life if you choose to live like a bum.

I would rather see the money spent on educating the students about drugs, and I would not oppose internment camps for those members of society who are criminals addicted to drugs to live there, far away from society. If this sounds harsh, put their current lives of living at the mercy of society under an overpass into perspective. Of course there should be programs to help them back into society, but that task should be the sole responsibility of the individual who wants back in. These addicts and drunks create a lot of collateral damage.

Anyone else remember in the late 70's that program called Scared Straight, where they took at risk teenagers through a maximum security prison? Just the television program scared the hell out of me. That should be required of all students, at risk or not, in this society where modern music and video games glorify the gangsta life.

Maybe at 40 I am just turning into an old fart.

Posted by: eric at July 8, 2006 2:23 PM

This raises the difficult question once again: "What obligation does the rest of the country have to prolong one individual's life, absent their effort?"

The hard choices are hard, not heartless, but I must point out that a vagrant housed is now entitled to other support. Right? And it's us, not "the state", "the city", etc., who just paid for this, and who will be paying this for the remainder of each bum's now-extended lifespan - and the precedent is now set for every other bum to line up.

Work, and be bled by every governmental agent. Sit, and be catered to, at the expense of those who work.

Posted by: Radwaste at July 8, 2006 3:01 PM

eric and Radwaste are correct. It is all of us who support those wastes. I've lived and cavorted with the fringe element for almost fifty years. Screw anyone who can't avoid poisoning themselves. Gone are the "innocent" days of not knowing what would happen. Get real, even in the sixties (when I first became aware of the problem) it was known as a problem. If you wanna shoot or toot, fine. When you OD, croak. Very simple. It is not incumbent upon anyone to support your terrible decisions. And no, this is not more cost efficient than, say, allowing them to freeze to death in the gutter. Scoop and poop into a pauper's grave is a grand or so.

While we cater to those who would purposely commit slow suicide, we short-change and shit-can the intelligent kids. Shameful.

I'm a hardass. And?

Posted by: Oligonicella at July 8, 2006 5:52 PM

You're a hard ass, Oligonicella. But it gets my clit hard.

Posted by: Lena at July 8, 2006 9:55 PM

Eric, you have to instill discipline in a kid from the get-go, you can't use money as a Band-Aid late in life. I don't know the kid's background; maybe she had a fantastic upbringing and she's just biologically a bad seed. (See Matt Ridley for how genes are switched on by the environment.) Nevertheless, the fact seems to be that it's cheaper to house the drunks than leave them on the streets. Would you rather pay $50,000 than $13,000 to say , "Screw you, I work hard, you're not getting any handouts"? I don't give street people money. But, this just seems smart fiscal policy. And sure, there are those, Kate, who'll sneak through the cracks. I don't know what their weeding process is. But $50,000 vs. $13,000. Seems an easy choice.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 8, 2006 10:01 PM

'Would you rather pay $50,000 than $13,000 to say , "Screw you, I work hard, you're not getting any handouts"?'

Sounds a bit like straw to me. Why spend a dime when they'll take care of themselves?

"...jail, homeless shelters and emergency rooms."

Those are the bogus expenses. If someone is committing slow suicide they deserve no sympathy. If the woman getting beaten is her own damn fault (according to some), then why extend a dime to these?


Posted by: Oligonicella at July 9, 2006 8:06 AM

It's not about deserving or not deserving sympathy. It's about cost. Would you rather pay $50,000 or $13,000? There are many, many costs, paid by the rest of us, whether we like it or not, associated with the bottom of the barrel addicts in society. Those costs seem to be lessened measurably by measures like this.

And Kate, I thought entry requirements this this morning. I would imagine they'd have to be recommended by a social worker after a certain amount of jailings, etc., that suggest they simply aren't ever going to redeem themselves.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 9, 2006 8:18 AM

Oligonicella is right. It's a lot cheaper and easier to let people die on the streets. That's why it's the preferred approach in the cities that I've called home most of my life.

George Lakoff has written about how liberals have dug their own grave by choosing to champion "programs" instead of values. Note how Oligonicella has framed the argument as a choice between enabling the lazy drug addicts vs. nurturing the intelligent kids. That carries a lot more rhetorical force than $50,000 vs. $13,000.

Until the genetic underpinnings of mental illness and drug addiction are better understood, single able-bodied men who don't work will never garner much sympathy from anyone. Advocates for the homeless will probably find a lot firmer ground if they focus on subgroups such as homeless veterans with combat-related PTSD (wave the flag, y'all) and children (especially the quiet ones with big doe-like eyes).

Posted by: Bleeding Heart Lena at July 9, 2006 9:25 AM

In my, Amy, this adult simply chose to go and have more fun with drugs and the gangsta lifestyle. She was 25, married and employed at the time. But work was a drag, marriage boring, and as Lena put it, tattooed bad boys made her clit hard. It was simply her lifestyle of choice, damn the consequenced.

Like this program, we let her live for a year in our condo downtown, which she turned into a crack den, full of pit bull puppies and felons. After I went in and physically kicked all their asses out, my wife felt bad and co-signed on an apartment, which was then turned into a crack den. After being evicted, and out of touch for about 6 months, she called after being beat up, and announced she was pregnant. My wife thought that maybe she hit rock bottom, and again got her into another nice apartment, in a very nice family neighborhood. This was trashed and she was evicted before the baby was born. When the baby was born, my wife thought "well now she has to grow up" and cosigned on an apartment, which again was turned into a crack den. She never gave a damn about the baby, at least how a mother should. The baby was simply a way of maintining her lifestyle, via government housing, food stamps, free medical care. Her baby's daddy has destoyed his kidneys from drugs, is in and out of prison, and gets primo health care from the taxpayer, along with social security since he can't work. He can't work but he can run drugs and guns, and strut around like Mike Tyson.

I wish I could post the photos here- the squalor was remarkable. But your point is well taken, and I agree throwing money at the problem is like putting out a fire with gasoline. It seems to me this is exactly what this program does however. The $13k mentioned is upkeep- they fail to account for the $11.2 million in startup cost, for 75 bums? That's about $150k per bed, startup. Also all the health care, dental care, psychological care, etc will sure push those costs way up. And as far as investments in society go, unlike money for education, this money is never going to have a return on it.

But your point of it being cheaper (at the beginning of this social program) than the alternative does not go away, and I don't have an answer. Those in poverty today, in America, are not like the one's Steinbeck wrote about.

Posted by: eric at July 9, 2006 9:34 AM

It's not about deserving or not deserving sympathy. It's about cost. Would you rather pay $50,000 or $13,000? There are many, many costs, paid by the rest of us, whether we like it or not, associated with the bottom of the barrel addicts in society. Those costs seem to be lessened measurably by measures like this.

Because whenever you subsidize a behavior, which is what this is doing, you invariably get more of it. So maybe we'll pay fewer dollars per person, but we'll have more people to pay for.

And don't throw out the old, "But who would want to be a drunken souse on public housing trope," because this is a case about the margins. Just like when people said, increasing welfare benefits for single mothers would create more single mothers on welfare and people said, "That's ridiculous, who would want to be a single mother on welfare?" Sure enough, more single mothers were created.

Economics 101: When you pay someone to do something (free housing is a form of payment), people will do more of it.

Posted by: Mo at July 10, 2006 1:10 AM

Amy,

Without taking a stand either for or against the housing (as I would need to give the implications a lot more thought than I have at present), it strikes me that your view on this seems very inconsistent to others you hold.

There are a lot of social programs that enable people, under the theory that it’s cheaper to take care of them than to deal with the results – Welfare, Public Education, Medicaid, etc. While I understand that it looks like an initial savings, it seems like a “big brother” government program that would be abused, swell beyond reason, and turn into something repugnant to anyone who dislikes big government and a lack of personal responsibility and freedom.

Would you really want your tax dollars to go to this?

Posted by: Arianne at July 10, 2006 2:10 PM

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