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Bunks for Drunks

City’s homeless action plan includes permanent housing for chronic alcoholics.

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When faced with the decision of paying shelter fees or purchasing a bottle of booze, many of Memphis' homeless alcoholics opt for the latter.

But one objective in Mayor A C Wharton's "Action Plan to End Homelessness" will provide the best of both worlds for the city's homeless inebriates. The plan calls for a replication of Seattle's 1811 Eastlake Project, a 75-unit permanent housing facility where residents are allowed to drink as much as they wish.

"All of the programs we have now are abstinence-based. We have virtually nothing for people whose addictions have progressed to a point where they are unable to stop," said Katie Kitchin, a project consultant for the city of Memphis' Division of Housing and Community Development. "We're talking about people who have been unsheltered and drinking themselves to death for 10 to 15 years."

According to Brad Watkins with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, homeless chronic alcoholics cost $87 to $112 per inmate per day at 201 Poplar when they're arrested for alcohol-related crimes. Watkins said they also cost taxpayers money when they're treated at the hospital.

A 2006 article in The New Yorker documented the costs to the city of Las Vegas for a homeless man dubbed "Million Dollar Murray," whose frequent visits to doctors and hospitals cost the city over a million dollars during the man's lifetime.

Though the 1811 Eastlake Project in Seattle was controversial at its outset in 2005, a 2009 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated a cost savings of $2,449 per person per month after accounting for housing program costs.

"You can't argue with the evidence," Kitchin said. "This works. It saves money. It's more humane, and I think if you talk to a downtown businessperson or a Midtown homeowner, the last thing they want is a chronic alcoholic sleeping on the sidewalks and urinating or defecating in public places."

For most of the city's homeless, however, abstinence-based programs will remain the first option. The housing facility for alcoholics will only house 40 people. Kitchin said they'll work with the Memphis Police Department to identify which homeless alcoholics are picked up most often.

Kitchin said the city would not fund the residents' addictions. Instead, residents would need to come up with their own income to purchase alcohol. They also would be responsible for paying rent with 30 percent of their income.

Since the project is in the mayor's 10-year plan, the future center may be several years in the making. The plan estimates the cost at between $3 and $5 million, depending on whether a new facility is built or an existing building is re-used.

"People have a knee-jerk reaction to this, but the problem with saying you have to get sober to get housing is that addiction is not rational," Watkins said. "When a person is in the throes of addiction, it's the most important thing in their life. They'll choose alcohol over housing, before family, and before their own personal safety."

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