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Thursday, March 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Alcoholics' apartments generate many aid calls

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nearly every other day, the Seattle Fire Department responds to an apartment house for chronic street alcoholics to administer emergency medical aid to an ailing resident.

The $11.2 million housing project, located at 1811 Eastlake Ave., puts to test a unique concept in housing homeless hard-core alcoholics because residents are allowed to drink in their rooms.

The 39 aid calls to the building since it opened in mid-December far exceed what backers of the controversial project anticipated. And that raises questions about whether one of the key theories behind the project — saving taxpayer money by reducing visits by homeless hard-core alcoholics to Harborview Medical Center's emergency room — is going to pan out.

The number of calls for emergency aid "has been a little bit of an eye-opener," said Bill Hobson, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center, which owns and operates the building. "I don't think anyone anticipated the state of their basic health and the extent of their illnesses."

But Hobson said it is premature to draw any conclusions about the success of the experiment.

Critics of the project predicted that the apartment's residents would act irresponsibly and sully the surrounding business district. They envisioned a spike in panhandling and petty crimes such as vandalism or shoplifting.

But so far, the police story pales in comparison to the amount of aid calls.

"We understand that this project is under a community microscope," said Hobson, who is turning down media requests for visits to the facility and interview residents. "But we're still in that stage of us getting to know our residents and our residents getting to know us."

Part of getting acquainted is better understanding the health issues facing each tenant. Some 1811 Eastlake residents are very sick, suffering cardiovascular, upper-respiratory, renal and circulatory problems symptomatic of years of abusing alcohol. Hobson said his staff is erring on the side of caution by calling for emergency aid whenever a resident appears to be in distress.

Of the 39 aid calls placed over the past 12 weeks, however, seven have saved a resident's life, Hobson said.

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Ed Dwyer-O'Connor, psychiatric emergency-services manager at Harborview, said that since 1811 Eastlake has opened, the building's residents seem to be making fewer visits to the emergency room simply for being passed-out drunk, which had typically been the case when they were homeless.

"They are coming here now to be treated for life-threatening situations, which is fine. That's why we're here," he said.

Toughest cases

The 75-unit apartment house on the edge of downtown is about two-thirds occupied, a deliberately slow ramping up to full capacity, Hobson said.

Residents of 1811 Eastlake are homeless chronic alcoholics who have been addicted for at least 15 years and failed at treatment at least six times. With virtually no chance to achieve sobriety, they are given an opportunity to rent a nice studio where they can drink until they pass out, but still must follow house rules that ban disorderly conduct in common areas and in the neighborhood.

Tenants are being plucked from a list of homeless men and women who are draining the most emergency and criminal-justice resources from taxpayers. The theory is that permanent housing will help stabilize their lives, and reduce the number of times they visit emergency rooms, jails or detox centers. It also is hoped that residents will moderate their drinking.

A Harborview nurse operates a clinic on site 40 hours a week. Other clinicians on staff include mental-health and alcohol-treatment specialists.

Hobson said the suddenness of putting homeless alcoholics into an environment where their health is both assessed and addressed is resulting in the high number of aid calls. He said he expects the number to go down once his staff becomes more familiar with each resident's needs.

Neighbor isn't fazed

Helen Fitzpatrick, Seattle Fire spokeswoman, said the 39 calls for emergency aid are not a burden to the department, which typically responds to more than 5,000 aid calls a month.

"We have firefighters and paramedics on duty for 24 hours, so there are no additional personnel costs" associated with responding multiple times to a single address, she said. "We conceivably could have been responding to these individuals anyway, but instead of being in different areas of the city, they now are all concentrated in one building."

In addition to medical-aid calls, police have responded to the building about 10 times, including once for an assault. The alleged assailant was a resident, who subsequently was evicted that night, Hobson said.

Mike Anderson, who co-owns Northwest Trophy next door, said a few of his customers have been heckled or panhandled, although not aggressively. His bottom line has not been affected, he said, although some soccer moms and baseball moms say they do not want to pick up trophies from the shop, preferring to have them shipped.

"Our property hasn't been defaced," he said. "There's been a little bit of littering, but nothing out of whack."

His biggest gripe is with the building's vendors who park in the private spaces reserved for the trophy shop. He calls to have them towed.

"The lack of consideration by the vendors is surprising," Anderson said. "I think we're trying to give the alcoholics more of a break than we are the vendors."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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