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Success of Karluk Manor depends on who you ask

Michelle Theriault Boots
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Karluk Manor is half a year old.

Nearly six months after opening Alaska's first "Housing First" residence, founders say most tenants appear to be healthier and drinking less. But three residents have died of alcoholism-related causes at the facility, which provides chronic homeless alcoholics housing without the precondition that they stop drinking, since December.

Police say it's hard to tell if housing some of Anchorage's most prolific users of police and emergency services is having an effect. Fairview businesses say Karluk Manor may be helping people, but it's in the wrong location and should move.

Mike Johnston has lived in Karluk since the day it opened. He says the past six months have been some of the best and most sober of his adult life.

"I drink less now," he said. "It's not the way I want to live."

His simple but comfortable efficiency apartment is decorated with pictures of his mother and nature scene clippings from magazines. His hats hang neatly along the wall. A newspaper crossword, done in ink, sits on the table. "The Price Is Right" plays on his TV, which he calls "the electronic lobotomy."

There are no booze bottles visible. There is a jar of honey, a couple cans of tuna fish and some coupons for men's extra wide shoes.

Johnston has silver hair that hangs past his ears and a missing row of teeth. He uses a cane to get around. He has been an alcoholic for 40 of his almost 57 years.

"It has tried to kill my human spirit," he said.

Originally from Craig, he came to Anchorage in the 1960s.

Living on the streets, he said, he would sleep where he passed out in the summertime. In the winter, he'd end up in the sleep-off shelter.

Yes, there's a lot of drinking that goes on at Karluk, he said. That's what it's built for. He mostly keeps to himself.

"I pray for these people every day and night," he said.

He wants to take technology classes and practice using a computer daily. He would like to get a driver's license, which he feels would open doors to employment. An intricate Haida carving on red cedar sits in a corner. He wants to finish the carving and put designs on paper, too. He's thought about volunteering at the food bank.

"I know that this is my way out," he said.

Three people have died on the premises of the 46-unit residence, a converted motel.

"It's sad, but nobody forced them to drink," Johnston said.

Four people have been evicted for violent or destructive behavior. In April, a woman stabbed her boyfriend, who lived in a separate efficiency apartment, and is now jailed on assault charges. One tenant moved out on his own.

The residents of Karluk Manor, who were selected from an initial 150 applicants, are some of the neediest and most vulnerable chronic homeless alcoholics in Anchorage, said Melinda Freemon, the spokeswoman for Karluk Manor and the head of its parent organization RurAL CAP's supportive housing division. They were rated on criteria including Community Service Patrol pickups, incarcerations and emergency room visits.

The nonprofit RurAL CAP says it spends $23,000 annually to house people who were each costing the public $60,600 a year in services.

Karluk Manor is funded with a mix of federal and state grant money and rent contributions from residents.

"We're basically giving the people using the system the most -- and who have the most needs -- housing," she said.

One of the biggest challenges, Freemon said, is that it took so long for Alaska to get a Housing First facility. Some projects in the Lower 48 have been around for 15 to 20 years.

For some tenants, by the time Karluk Manor opened in December "their disabilities have progressed so much that by the time they move in they're in pretty rough shape," she said.

Studies on Lower 48 Housing First facilities have shown a 30 percent reduction in drinking by residents.

Anecdotally, that bears out at Karluk Manor so far, said Ken Scollan, the on-site manager.

People are also getting more consistent medical care, Freemon said.

Some tenants, before moving in, had hundreds of contacts with the Anchorage Police Department each year.

There isn't hard data to report yet, but researchers from UAA's Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority are monitoring Karluk Manor and a similar project that opened this week in Fairbanks to track residents' health and use of social services.

Anchorage police and paramedics have responded to calls from Karluk Manor 66 times, eight for someone feeling suicidal or attempting suicide, five for an intoxicated person and three for rape calls. The rape calls were investigated but did not lead to criminal charges nor did police find evidence that a sexual assault took place, a police spokeswoman said.

Sixty-six calls in six months is a lot, said Sgt. Mark Rein, who works in APD's community policing unit. It's not as high as some other locations, like low-end motels.

Freemon said police calls reflect the complex problems of the tenants, many of whom suffer from mental illness and chronic health problems.

"I would be concerned if I saw a Housing First facility without any calls," she said.

Directors expect some residents to move on to independent living. But they will likely be in the minority, Freemon said.

Residents are welcome to stay, paying rent on a sliding scale from $50 to $700, as long as they would like to.

"This is housing without preconditions," she said.

For advanced-stage alcoholics it may be the last place they live.

"In some ways it is like hospice for some folks," she said. "Their disease is so far progressed."

Paul Fuchs, head of the Fairview Business Association, said after six months his group still believes the project is a burden on a neighborhood already loaded with social service facilities.

"We're not objecting to Karluk Manor," he said. "We think it's in the wrong location."

The Fairview Business Association would like to see Karluk Manor move, possibly near Ship Creek or in an area with less traffic. Karluk Manor is on the corner of Fifth and Karluk, a spot with about 24,000 cars passing each day.

Copper River Seafoods, located next to Karluk Manor, has offered to take on the facility and turn it into a dorm for its own workers, Fuchs said.

One remaining issue is the proximity of liquor stores.

The corner of 13th and Gambell continues to be a hangout for people trying to buy booze at one of two nearby package stores, though it's hard to say how much of the that traffic comes from Karluk Manor, Fuchs said.

A store manager at the Gambell Street Carrs said he was not authorized to comment on the issue.

RurAL CAP and Karluk Manor have tried to be good neighbors, Fuchs said, telling the association and businesses to report any problems.

Heidi Heinrich, who has managed the Lucky Wishbone restaurant for 26 years, said it's hard to quantify the effect of Karluk Manor specifically because of the restaurant's location in "the axle in the wheel of social services."

The creation of Karluk Manor was the catalyst for neighborhood business owners to create the Fairview Business Association, she said.

The group doesn't want to emphasize problems because it scares customers and potential businesses away from the area, she said. The association's strategy is to work with social service groups for long-term solutions.

"We're here," she said. "We can work together rather than against each other. And that's what our goal is at this time."

Edwin and Geraldine Palmer are married but have separate units at Karluk Manor.

Edwin, 49, is originally from Pennsylvania and worked as a commercial fisherman before drifting into homelessness. Two years ago the Navy veteran was hit by a truck. His wife Geraldine, 38 and originally from Alakanuk, is disabled. He won't leave her alone in Anchorage because it's too dangerous, he says.

The two are delighted to be at Karluk Manor. They have privacy, a bed, clean laundry and a roof. Begonias and hanging flower baskets have been planted outside. Lunch is a taco bar and salad.

He knows there are people who don't like Karluk Manor. But he says they probably haven't been homeless and addicted to alcohol, something he wouldn't wish on anybody.

"Being homeless is hard, dirty, wet and dangerous," Edwin said. "You want to stay numb."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Photos: Life at Karluk Manor
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News