Monday, February 25, 2008

Seattle offers a place for homeless to call home - even to drink

The 75 tenants at 1811 Eastlake were once chronic drunks, living and boozing on Seattle's streets. Two years ago, outreach workers rounded them up and gave them their own place to live - and drink.

Despite an initial furor about taxpayers' supporting chronic alcoholics - "bunks for drunks," some critics have called it - Seattle Mayor Gregory J. Nickels announced last month that the program was succeeding.

Nickels said 1811 Eastlake and a second facility, Plymouth on Stewart, had saved taxpayers $3.2 million in emergency social and health services formerly spent on homeless people. Tenants have also reported a one-third reduction in the number of days they get drunk.

Built with $11.2 million in government funding, 1811 Eastlake costs taxpayers $13,000 a year for each tenant. That's a fraction of the $50,000 Seattle says it would spend on jails, emergency hospitalization and treatment for each homeless person on the street.

But 1811 Eastlake is not a glorified flophouse.

It has two staffers on duty around the clock. And with the help of 14 other full-time staff and counselors, tenants get two hot meals a day, trips to a local food bank, medication monitoring, and health services through Medicaid. They also receive housewares, clothing and other supplies.

The theory behind 1811 Eastlake is "Housing First," developed 15 years ago by Sam Tsemberis, an advocate for the homeless in New York City. About 150 cities, including Philadelphia, have adopted variations that are less radical than Seattle's.

After years of working with homeless people, Tsemberis decided the traditional ways did not work. He turned the model on its head: First get the homeless into housing, then provide services to keep them off the streets.

In 2005, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Princeton health-care research organization, awarded $400,000 to researchers at the University of Washington who are studying the Eastlake approach. The three-year study ends in July.

New York City expects to open its version of 1811 Eastlake within a year. Rob Hess, who ran Philadelphia's homeless services for five years before accepting the same job in New York in 2006, said he was not surprised that chronic alcoholics did less drinking once they were in their own apartments.

"They have . . . a safe environment as opposed to having to sleep on the streets," he said.

"Nobody really wants to live on the streets."
source: The Philadelphia Inquirer

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