Wet shelters may be connected to more deaths than we'd like, but they offer a last-resort home to the chronically homeless

When John Kort died in an Anchorage homeless shelter on New Year’s Day, the news spread faster than one might’ve expected. Kort wasn’t the victim of a fascinating crime and – at least from what I can tell – he wasn’t famous. So why was the Associated Press story about his death headline-worthy for ABC, Fox News, Salon and others?

Kort’s death marked the first at a controversial new homeless shelter that opened last fall in Anchorage, Ala. It’s called Karluk Manor and it’s rare because it’s a "wet shelter" – meaning there is no policy against drinking on premises.

Chronic alcoholism is often seen as a path toward homelessness, so typical homeless shelters don’t allow drinking inside. And it’s for that reason, according to Cadillac Man ("Northern Queens’s most famous homeless person" who wrote the book Land of the Lost Souls about his journeys) that make homeless shelters a last resort for folks on the street.

"Most of us would rather take our chances outside," he told me earlier this week. "I wish there were more [homeless shelters] that would just leave you alone."

Administrators at Karluk will, in some ways, leave its tenants alone.

Karluk is part of a "housing first" movement for the homeless that debuted in 2005 at a similar project called 1811 Eastlake in Seattle. Sobriety is not a requirement there.

A 2006 New York Times profile about Eastlake summarized the arguments against it by quoting a conservative Seattle radio talk show host, John Carlson, who said it amounted to "Bunks for drunks," or "a living monument to failed social policy" that is "aiding and abetting someone's self-destruction."

Proponents for Eastlake argued the opposite. It’s easier to get sober inside rather than on the street and, according to John Meyers, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Seattle office, who spoke to the Times, "It's a lot cheaper having them spend the night at 1811 than at the E.R. or at the drunk tank."

The arguments in Anchorage are a little different. Complaints don’t focus as much on the shelter’s approach to alcoholism as they focus on its location.

Karluk is based in a former Red Roof Inn that sits in a relatively congested part of Anchorage next to a thriving seafood company, Copper River Seafoods.

"We've had a car broken into, and property stolen from a woman who works in our accounting office," Copper River’s Vice President, Robin Richardson, told Alaska television station KTVA 11. "We've had people who have come in here who are inebriated, who we've offered to help out, offered to provide cabs, and then they've become belligerent. We've had people sleeping in our parking lot, people who are next to our cars, that kind of thing. And we're quite concerned about the safety of our employees."

An editorial in the Anchorage Daily News doesn’t directly dismiss this complaint but says it’s not what’s ultimately important. "If Karluk Manor, the motel for chronic alcoholics, means nothing more than death in a warm bed, then it's still an act of kindness and humanity,” the editorial reads.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, agrees with the Daily News and says one death shouldn’t turn people off the idea of a wet shelter.

"This isn’t a party house,” he told me earlier this week. "Wet in this case refers to the fact that [tenants] can consume alcohol in spite of the fact that they declare to be an alcoholic. They’re there getting served but the understanding is that they can consume alcohol in the process of recovery."

The idea is that this type of home is designed to be transitional, he says. “They can get ready when they’re ready – inside rather than on the street.”

Donovan says the alternative amounts to blackmail.

"You bar a person from a shelter as a way to pressure them to get treatment," he says. "If you’re sick, your judgment is skewed. And you’re taking advice from some punk just out of college who tells you that you need to stop drinking. Do you think that’s going to be a turning point?"

Bill Hobson, who runs 1811 Eastlake, elaborates.

"We are dealing with a unique subset of individuals here,” he says. "These are late stage, chronic alcoholics, normally 45 and older with a minimum of 15 years of street alcohol addiction. They’ve lost everything -- families, job, housing. And so they’re transacting their addiction in public spaces."

On the street, Hobson says, "these people have a 5 percent chance of survival." And furthermore, he says, when they’re out on the street, these folks end up in the emergency room, get picked up by police and often end up in jail, costing taxpayers money. He points to an April 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that says the chronically alcoholic homeless people cost the city of Seattle two-thirds less housed in Eastlake than they do out on the street.

Hobson says administrators at Karluk asked him and others at Eastlake for advice before they opened the facility in Anchorage. And Hobson warned them: “people are going to die in your program. These people are medically fragile. So be prepared for it.”

Hobson says 1811 lost eight people its first year. Since then, he says between 30 and 40 have died in the program.

"But at least they’re dying on a warm bed rather than in the street," he says.

Photo credit: Bryan Snyder/Reuters

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