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Originally published Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

No place like home for alcoholics

Some solutions hide right under our noses. A successful Seattle housing project for homeless alcoholics is in that category. Looking backward, the project...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Some solutions hide right under our noses.

A successful Seattle housing project for homeless alcoholics is in that category.

Looking backward, the project makes sense, but it took some struggle to make it happen.

The project, 1811 Eastlake, is part of a movement called Housing First, in which people who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol are put into stable housing not as a reward for getting clean or being treated, but as a first step toward improvement in the rest of their lives.

Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) built and runs the 1811 Eastlake apartment building.

It runs six other housing projects that provide homes for mentally ill people, most of whom also come in with drug problems.

But the home for alcoholics was a harder sell.

DESC executive director Bill Hobson said, "It was perceived by the public that we were simply opening a party house where individuals addicted to alcohol were going to be allowed to drink, run amok and generally set their hair on fire."

That didn't happen. Right from the start, the benefits of their approach started showing up, and a University of Washington study released this week gives the project even more credibility and may help spread the Housing First approach.

In a news conference Tuesday, Mary Larimer, UW professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and lead researcher, presented her findings.

Briefly, the project involved chronically homeless alcoholics. These were people who had been homeless for at least the past three years and were among the most costly in terms of the government services they used.

Ninety-five were housed in the project. Another group on a waiting list was used for comparison.

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For each resident of 1811, taxpayers were saved $2,449 a month in the first half-year and the savings kept going up the longer people were in the housing. There were fewer trips to Harborview Medical Center, fewer nights in jail.

Not only that, alcohol consumption dropped by a third.

People first started kicking around the idea of Housing First in the late 1990s. Hobson got permission from his board to start a project in 1999, but it took until 2005 to overcome obstacles and open the apartments.

There are lots of reasons why we sometimes overlook good solutions.

Fears. People worried that having a building full of alcoholics would bring crime to their neighborhood.

Sometimes we don't trust that there is a solution.

King County Executive Ron Sims spoke at the news conference. He said he didn't think the idea would work.

Sims has spent a lot of time ministering to homeless people with Operation Nightwatch.

Instead of hostility, he had compassion, but what he lacked was enough faith in the ability of homeless alcoholics to change if they weren't forced to do so.

Sims said that over the years he became frustrated seeing individuals again and again wind up on the streets.

"It seemed easier to say we've got to get even more stringent," Sims said.

His staff talked him into supporting the project, but he remained skeptical until the evidence started coming in. Tax dollars were being saved, and so were people.

What was working was giving people back part of their humanity.

The apartment building's staff includes counselors, but they don't force anyone into treatment. Instead they get to know residents and have conversations instead of giving lectures, Hobson said.

He said Housing First is "predicated on the idea that if you eliminate the chaos of homelessness from an individual's life, clinical and social stabilization will occur faster and be much more enduring."

The participants had gone through treatment programs an average of 16 times without changing their habits before this program.

Having a home matters. The solution was there all along, no wizardry necessary; all we had to do was to open our eyes and see it.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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