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Home for chronic inebriates opens in Fairbanks

Posted: May 28, 2012 - 12:02am

FAIRBANKS — A new residential facility for the homeless has quietly opened on South Cushman Street, offering living space to residents who may have gone a decade or more without it.

The facility, at the site of a former Best Western hotel, is based on the “Housing First” model that has grown in acceptance in recent years. The complex targets chronic inebriates, but doesn’t require that its residents stop drinking to stay there.

The theory behind Housing First is that residents can better address their problems once they’ve been placed in a stable environment, said facility director Shirley Lee. A sister facility with the same philosophy, Karluk Manor, recently opened in Anchorage.

The local Housing First Facility also has a purpose more specific to Fairbanks. Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of Interior tribes, began pursuing the project after seven homeless people froze to death during a particularly tragic winter. Tribal delegates voted unanimously in March 2011 to pursue the project.

“Treatment alone isn’t going to be the answer to this problem,” TCC President Jerry Isaac said.

“But with a holistic, alternative approach, we found the success rate was a lot more noticeable.”

With the help of a $1.8 million Alaska Housing Finance Corp. grant, TCC purchased the 62,000-square-foot hotel last year from Fountainhead Development to convert into a homeless residency.

The conversion didn’t require particularly big cosmetic changes. When it stopped operating as a hotel about five years ago, beds, furniture and even the artwork on the walls remained. Fresh paint and flooring are the key additions to the wood-accented facility, although some adjacent rooms at the former hotel have been joined together to create eight one-bedroom units.

With just seven occupants, the vibe at the Housing First Facility isn’t much different than it was when the complex was empty. It was completely silent on Friday morning, without a resident in sight. One of the few signs of occupancy was a partially completed jigsaw puzzle in front of a window in the lobby downstairs.

The facility has been home to its first group of residents since early May, with plans to gradually expand to 47 occupants as the building becomes fully staffed. A dozen employees will eventually work at the Housing First Facility.

Lee said there’s plenty of interest from the homeless community — there were 119 applications to occupy a unit. Those selected will be screened using several factors, but primarily based on the cost of their hospital visits, trips to detox, police contacts or other social services through the years.

Part of the theory behind the Housing First model is that it actually saves a community money by reducing those sorts of expensive contacts over time. Lee said a study will be conducted during the first year of operation to see what savings result from the facility.

“It’s been shown Outside, if you provide stable housing there’s a benefit — not just on community services, but more importantly, in people’s lives,” she said.

Those approved so far for units at the Housing First Facility are a diverse group, Lee said, including men, women, college graduates and people from varying racial backgrounds. Membership in a TCC-affiliated tribe isn’t required.

To invest in the growing community, residents are required to pay 30 percent of the rent. Housing vouchers or other sources will pay for the remaining 70 percent of the rent, which starts at $670 for an efficiency apartment.

The facility offers three meals a day, including hot lunches and dinners. Lee said it’s another nod to the reality of being homeless, including some residents who have lived on the streets for more than a decade.

“Some of them have lost their life skills,” Lee said. “They don’t know when to eat, what to eat anymore.”

Sign-in is required at the front desk, and visitors and residents must abide by a handful of basic rules: Only one guest per room at a time, and a total of 10 in the facility; visitors must be sober; and no alcohol is allowed in rooms.

And like in a conventional apartment complex, residents will be subject to a code of conduct. If they misbehave, eviction is a possibility.

One thing the facility won’t actively try to do is wean its residents off alcohol, although resources will be available if they want to deal with their addiction problems. Even so, she said drinking typically drops among Housing First residents after they’ve moved in.

“We are primarily a housing program — that’s what we’re doing, is giving them housing,” Lee said. “Anything else is just fruit.”

A second component at the building is a separate project that will provide temporary housing for out-of-town residents who need to travel to Fairbanks for medical care. Thirty-seven units are being made available on the other side of the building for that purpose, which Lee said should open in the next few months.

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