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Street Smart

[Photo 1: A man lying on the ground with empty cans next to him]

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA - Most folks avoid a drunk sleeping stupefied on the sidewalk. They walk around him, averting their eyes, thinking other thoughts. Like, "not our problem."

By evening's end, though, there's a good chance he'll end up in an emergency room being treated for injuries. Or on the way to the county jail. Or on a slab, in a morgue, headed for the next available grave.

Then it is our problem. We're taxpayers. That hospital visit, that night or two behind bars cost money, a cost most likely borne by taxpayers. It's his problem, but it's our wallets.

In recent years a couple dozen homeless inebriates have been found dead in the parks and on the streets of Anchorage. It's why RurALCAP - the Rural Alaska Community Action Program - has opened Karluk Manor in the Fairview neighborhood. A former Red Roof Inn that, thanks to funding from the City, Alaska Housing Finance, Alaska Mental Health Trust, Rasmuson Foundation, Wells Fargo Bank Alaska and HUD, it's been converted into 48 units of housing for income-eligible, chronically-alcoholic homeless.

It's sparked controversy. Lots of it, especially among residents of Fairview which already is home to a number of social services agencies. At a hearing last year, a Planning and Zoning Commissioner told The Anchorage Daily News, they offered "lengthy and emotional and compelling testimony" on "the stress and they feel over people who are passed out in the snow, in the streets or the fear they feel when someone is camped out in their carport." Understandably, they're worried the Manor could mean more - much more - of the same.

In response, the City's installing cameras in a nearby park and RurALCAP has launched a 24-hour hotline for Fairview residents to call with concerns or complaints, made sure two staff be on duty at all times and plans regular surveys of Fairview residents on "what's working and what's not." And, every year, the Commission will review whether its conditional permit should be renewed for another year.

All that's just common sense. So too are the full range of sober activities, substance abuse and mental health referrals, tenant meetings and case management to help encourage this community of inebriates to get on the wagon and stay there.

But, for many, it's the not-so common sense aspects that are troubling - that while Manor residents are prohibited from drinking in common areas or outside, they may drink on their own dime in the warmth, comfort and security of their rooms.

Crazy, right? Maybe not. A few years ago, University of Washington researchers took a closer look at how well the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle had worked since it opened in 2005 to serve a similar population with similar house rules.

"It was perceived that we were opening a party house," the Center's executive director Bill Hobson told The Seattle Post Intelligencer. But the researchers reported something different.

They "followed 95 chronic alcoholic homeless before and after they moved into" 1811 Eastlake, said The Seattle Times, and "kept tabs" on a group of who'd not entered the program. On average, they found, it cost taxpayers $4,832 "per person, per month" to provide medical and correctional services to these 95 while they were "living on the streets." Within six months of beginning to live at 1811 Eastlake, however, the per person, per month cost dropped to just $1,492, an almost 70 percent savings.

"Contrary to expectations," they also found that residents "drank less after moving in" and "some even stopped." It turned out to be a "doggoone good idea," said then King County Executive Ron Sims. Initially, he'd "reluctantly" okayed County funds for the Center. "Our return on investment," he now realizes, "exceeded any expectation," he told The Post-Intelligencer.

Like Sims, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan was skeptical when his homeless advisory group recommended the Manor as priority number one. For a host of reasons, wrote The Daily News, he never really "got on board." But the Mayor was invited to speak at the grand opening. He did. That doesn't mean, of course, that he's now "on board," but he is willing to give it a chance to work.

Common sense, it turns out, may not always make the best sense. Maybe, like Seattle, the Manor's approach will work in Anchorage. Maybe not. Only time will tell. 

What's already clear is that, despite 18 months of sometimes heated controversy from RurALCAP and its partners to Mayor Sullivan and his homeless advisory group, from the residents and businesses of Fairview to the city's homeless providers, the people of Anchorage will not accept people freezing to death on their streets. Given their common resolve, there's no doubt they'll find the way to make sure no one does.


Content Archived: October 30, 2013

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