Deaths linked to alcohol expected at Housing First facilities

Michelle Theriault Boots

Critics of Karluk Manor argue low-cost or free housing for chronic alcoholics will do nothing to encourage them to kick their addictions. They also say that it could end up functioning as a "suicide hall," as one Facebook commenter termed it, where people are left to drink themselves to death.

John Kort's death, they say, is the first of many.

Advocates of the "Housing First" model say their approach gives severe alcoholics the foundation of a home -- something they need to tackle their addictions.

"If they were still on the street they would be subject to the cruelties and vicissitudes of street existence, and certainly not drinking any less," said Bill Hobson, the executive director of DESC, parent organization of Seattle's 1811 Eastlake Housing First residence.

Karluk Manor was modeled after 1811 Eastlake.

But some people have had their health so compromised by alcoholism by the time they get to Housing First that there's little chance of recovery, he said.

Deaths in such facilities are inevitable, Hobson said. Eight people died in the first year 1811 Eastlake was open.

None of the deaths was from acute alcohol poisoning. All were related to the long-term health impacts of heavy drinking.

Kort was in "very fragile health" at the time of his death, said Melinda Freemon of RurAL CAP, the nonprofit organization that runs Karluk Manor.

"We've said all along that Karluk Manor is permanent housing for late-stage alcoholics," she said. "We expected we would have people pass away."

Dr. Charles Herndon, an Anchorage addiction specialist, says chronic alcoholics are at risk for physical problems that range from stomach ulcers to brain damage.

"I can go through three pages of potential medical complications," he said.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the average age of death for a chronic street alcoholic is between 42 and 52 years. Somewhere between 30 percent and 70 percent of those deaths are related to alcohol, according to the study.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.

Anchorage Daily News