Inn could become residency for homeless alcoholics

Plan attracts strong opinions - both for and against - in Anchorage

Posted: Monday, February 01, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A plan to create a permanent home for homeless alcoholics in an Anchorage neighborhood is attracting strong opinions - both for and against.

A private social service agency wants to turn the Red Roof Inn of Fairview into a home for street alcoholics who can't stop drinking. RuralCAP already runs Homeward Bound and plans to call the new project Karluk Manor. The motel sits between Fifth and Sixth avenues along Karluk Street.

More than 50 people attended a Fairview Community Council forum on the project on Thursday. Some thought the program was innovative and overdue. Others thought it would be a disaster. One man handed out cards showing a mock "inebriate crossing" and designated panhandling lanes along Sixth Avenue.

Each side got 10 minutes to make its case.

"We have found throughout our country that if you provide safe and stable housing for people, their alcohol consumption goes down about 30 percent so they are able to make better decisions about how they spend their time," said Melinda Freemon, director of RuralCAP's Anchorage division.

A similar project in Seattle has had notable results.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Seattle's 1811 Eastlake building has saved taxpayers more than $4 million a year in emergency social and health programs.

The study endorses the "housing first" approach that calls for putting homeless people in permanent homes with supportive services instead of requiring them to stop drinking and taking drugs to earn their shelter.

Researchers at the University of Washington followed 95 chronic alcoholics before and after they moved into supportive housing run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center. They also kept tabs on a control group who were on the waiting list for the apartment building.

They found the average cost of alcohol-related hospital emergency services, the nonprofit "sobering center" where police bring alcoholics to dry out, and the King County jail was $4,832 per person per month while the 95 were living on the street.

Six months after moving into the apartment building, the average cost for these services dropped to $1,492 per person per month.

Karluk Manor would be the first official "wet housing" in Anchorage. It wouldn't be a shelter, but rather a group of 48 apartments with round-the-clock staffing.

Residents would contribute toward rent, no overnight visitors would be allowed, residents couldn't drink in common areas or on nearby streets and panhandling and loitering in the area would be banned.

The agency is waiting to hear whether it will receive state grant funding to buy the motel and pay for support staff. The motel itself must pass inspections, and the project will need a city conditional use permit, which RuralCap didn't originally think was needed.

Freemon told Thursday's crowd that staff and residents work hard to be good neighbors wherever they are.

"When we opened Homeward Bound in 1997 (in Mountain View), we didn't have quite the same response as Fairview has given us, but we weren't exactly welcomed there either," she said.

Now Mountain View supports the program, she said.

S.J. Klein, a Fairview resident who owns a business called Alaska Sprouts, said the community cares about the homeless and wants to help, but what RuralCAP is proposing is flawed.

The Red Roof Inn is in the heart of where homeless alcoholics already congregate so it won't remove residents from the problem, Klein said. He feels turning the inn into wet housing will make Fairview an even bigger draw for inebriates.

Klein said the project would work better in a more affluent part of town, where the residents could really make a fresh start.

Kenny Petersen, who described himself as a second generation owner of Midtown's Allen & Petersen Cooking & Appliance Center, said the approach is sorely needed.

"I'd like one of these in my own neighborhood," Petersen said. "I'd like one of these in each neighborhood in town." He said he sees chronic inebriates on the corner in front of his store and his heart goes out to them.

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