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Experimental apartment building in Seattle welcomes homeless alcoholics; project saves money

    SEATTLE — When Brian Steik lived on the streets, the government spent tens of thousands of dollars on emergency room visits and other services to keep the alcoholic alive.
    Now social-service agencies are conducting an experiment: Offering Steik and dozens of other homeless drinkers subsidized apartments where they can keep boozing at a fraction of the cost.
    ‘‘The average citizen who hears about this project probably is appalled,’’ said Bill Hobson, executive director of the city’s Downtown Emergency Services Center, which constructed the apartments.
    ‘‘Their concern runs something along these lines: ’Why do I want to spend my tax money on people who are not doing anything to help themselves?’ The answer to that is: You’re already spending it.’’
    The four-story $11.2 million building is one of few such facilities in the nation. Minneapolis has a similar program.
    The Seattle apartments were built with taxpayer and privately donated dollars. The center expects to spend about $11,000 per resident to operate the building each year, less than 10 percent of the money chronic drunks would cost if left on the streets. Preliminary figures suggest the building will pay for itself in less than five years.
    Before moving into an apartment, the 40-year-old Steik was a frequent visitor to the Seattle Sobering Center, a nonprofit agency where police bring homeless alcoholics to dry out. He spent 700 nights there in 2 1/2 years.
    ‘‘I had a place to live every night as long as I was intoxicated enough,’’ Steik said.
    At the apartment building, residents pay less than $200 a month in rent and must buy their own alcohol. Seventy-five people live there, with more waiting to get in.
    ‘‘We need more places like this,’’ said Steik, who lives on disability payments. ‘‘I can afford living here, but I can’t afford an actual apartment someplace else.’’
    Residents are selected by social-service providers who agree on a list of the worst alcoholics. Once in, they can stay for the rest of their lives as long as they follow a few rules focusing mostly on avoiding violence.
    On a recent visit to the building, a big sunny dining room was half-full of residents in various stages of intoxication. The air smelled slightly of alcohol, but there were no cans or bottles around.
    Residents usually drink in their small studio apartments. Some have smaller cubicles with three walls and just enough room for a bed, a freestanding closet and a chair.
    Some residents say the program has helped cut their drinking in half; one person claims to have quit drinking entirely.
    Steik says his drinking hasn’t changed that much — he still consumes a couple of tall six-packs on most days. But he’s eating better, watching his health and paying his rent on time every month.
    The Metropolitan Improvement District reports alcohol activity on the downtown streets has been cut in half. Human-service agencies report their contact with downtown drunks has been reduced by 56 percent.
    But the program still has its skeptics.
    Police Sgt. Paul Gracy acknowledges it may save money at the emergency room, but officers continue to pick up drunks all over town.
    The 75 residents represent a ‘‘minuscule’’ portion of the alcoholics on the streets, Gracy said. ‘‘We still have to deal with these people.’’
    Dr. Michael Copass, chief of emergency services at Harborview Medical Center, thinks the results are worth it.
    ‘‘Two or three people who were double or triple daily visitors are now down to two or three a week,’’ Copass said. Getting chronic inebriates out of the cold and away from situations where they get beaten up or fall down improves their chances for survival.
    A 1999 King County study of 123 chronic public inebriates found they cost government and social-service agencies more than $100,000 per person per year in emergency room costs alone.
    Since the apartment building opened in late 2005, preliminary figures show emergency room visits by the worst cases have been cut by more than 90 percent. And use of the Sobering Center has dropped 24 percent.
    At least one neighbor, a business called Northwest Trophy, is unhappy about the project, Gracy said. The owners sued unsuccessfully to block its construction and have complained nonstop about noise, litter and trespassing. In April, they announced they were giving up and selling their building.
    Marriott Springhill Suites Hotel, another plaintiff in the unsuccessful 2002 lawsuit, has found the reality better than expected.
    ‘‘They’ve kept things right. I’ve been surprised. It keeps people off the streets,’’ Louis Haslett, Springhill’s general manager, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
    Mike Webb, 46, had been living on the streets since arriving in Seattle about five years ago with hopes of working on a fishing boat.
    The Marine veteran from Colorado Springs, Colo., survives on disability and whatever he makes as a street musician, playing blues harmonica with a guitar player who also lives at the building.
    Webb said he values the family atmosphere in the building and the comfort of knowing that he has a safe place to stay.
    ‘‘This is actually kind of a gift in a way,’’ he said.
    Webb said he still has a few friends on the street — mostly people who tried the new building but couldn’t get comfortable inside.
    ‘‘Some of the people I know had their chance here and they blew it. They couldn’t handle it. They prefer to be out there and that’s their choice,’’ Webb said.
    Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C., was not surprised at the success of the Seattle project. But she says the issue is more about housing than alcoholism.
    In the 1970s, chronic alcoholics could find cheap places to live, but affordable housing has all but disappeared in cities like Seattle.
    ‘‘Now you need probably $3,000 and a clean credit history and a job just to get in the door,’’ Roman said.

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