SEATTLE—Thousands of chronic alcoholics are battling life on Seattle streets but they're not doing it alone. Researchers say taxpayers are supporting this lifestyle paying out an average of $4,832 dollars every month. That's according to a UW study that looked at a group of chronically homeless individuals who incurred the highest total costs in 2004 for use of taxpayer-funded services.
The costs include everything from booking and housing costs in county jail, ambulance rides to the hospital, medical care and detox centers. Dr. Mary Larimer led the study and said many don't realize the hidden costs associated with this problem. "It's about $600 for an ambulance ride; in addition, if there's advance life support used in the call, that's about $750" Larimer said.
Larimer and other researchers worked with the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) on the project. DESC is a non-profit group that gets much of it's funding through government contracts. DESC opened an apartment building in late 2005 that centers around the concept of "housing first". That approach involves putting homeless people in permanent homes and then tackling addiction problems. "The conditions for changing alcohol use are not likely to be met on the streets" Dr. Larimer said. The project is called 1811 Eastlake and houses about 75 people.
DESC Executive Director, Bill Hobson, said "it costs the people of a community more money to leave people on the street than what it would cost to leave them in supportive housing." Hobson said the current system puts people in a persistent cycle that's not good for taxpayers or the people who need help.
Hobson believes the "housing first" approach is a win-win. "We reduced the total price tag by $4.1 million in a 12-month period of time" Hobson says. Some in the apartment building stopped drinking; the rest reduced their consumption by an average of a third. "Less than 5% of late-stage chronic alcoholics ever get sober for the rest of their life" Hobson adds "about 10% of the residents at 1811 Eastlake have gotten sober."
Keith Lewis is homeless and working with local non-profits to get off the streets. Lewis admits his homelessness has led to problems that put him jail but says one of his biggest problems has been health care. Lewis lost his foot to frostbite several years ago and says that, combined with his alcohol-use, has sent him to the hospital on a regular basis.
"I've been to the doctor several hundred times since '05, in the past year about 20 to 25 times" Lewis said. Lewis is working with a caseworker at DESC and says getting a roof over his head will be a big help in getting sober. "We live day-to-day and hope and pray that we get enough to survive for the day and then wake up and do it all over again" Lewis said.
The 1811 project has been controversial. Critics charge it enables those struggling with a destructive addiction to continue their lifestyle. Dr. Larimer believes most people don't realize how much is already being spent on chronic alcoholics "we're paying their rent anyway, we're just paying it in very inefficient ways." The 1811 Eastlake building is staffed around the clock and they offer counseling, treatment and some medical care.
King County's Committee to End Homelessness estimates about 8,500 people are living on the streets and about 1/3 are dealing addiction problems. Advocates say whether you look at the human cost or the money, it's a problem we can't afford to ignore. Hobson says "there is no such thing as a throw-away person; no one is ever so disabled, so disorganized, so dysfunctional that they're beyond redeeming."