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Karluk Manor residents in Anchorage drinking less, staying off the streets

Jerzy Shedlock
Anchorage's Karluk Manor houses homeless Alaskans without making them quit drinking completely. After the controversial complex's first year, residents living there have reduced their own drinking by nearly half. Tara Young photo

When Karluk Manor near downtown Anchorage opened its doors in December 2011, Bob Thomas had been wallowing around the bottom of a bottle for years, floating in and out of various social services such as RurAL CAP’s Homeward Bound and The Salvation Army’s Clitheroe Center. He fit the bill for the new housing-first project’s target population -- the city’s homeless who can’t seem to shake their addictions. Nearly two years later, Thomas is among the residents who have reduced their drinking and now have fewer run-ins with the law.

“I’ve slowed down,” he said. “It’s better than being at the (downtown Anchorage) transit center and constantly being offered drinks. Now, there are options.”

Thomas has lived at Karluk 22 months, since the apartments sheltering more than three dozen homeless Alaskans opened. Nine months ago, he began curbing his drinking. His last drink was six weeks ago, he said Friday at an annual housing and homelessness conference. He once went six months without a drink. “I can’t even drink as much anymore, which is good.”

RurAL CAP, a statewide nonprofit that helps low-income Alaskans, shared the challenges and achievements of Karluk’s first year or so of operation during the homeless conference last week. The controversial housing-first project allows its tenants to drink.

The nonprofit believes it has improved tenants’ health and saved taxpayer dollars.

Filled to capacity

Karluk Manor is located in the downtown neighborhood of Fairview, a spot that has become synonymous with homeless services, with Bean’s Café and Catholic Social Services’ Brother Francis Shelter, among others, several blocks away.

Two years ago, Fairview residents fought to prevent Karluk from opening. The municipality erected multiple hurdles -- insisting on two 24-hour staffers, a single point of entry, and an elevator -- to slow the project's development. RurAL CAP fulfilled all of the city’s requirements, and Karluk Manor opened anyway.

Fourteen people moved in opening day. Seven more came the next day. Two weeks later, Karluk was at capacity.

The apartment complex has 46 single-occupant, efficiency rooms. Thirty-one of Karluk’s residents have been there since the beginning, and 42 tenants have maintained housing for more than a year.

Five people have passed away while staying there, mostly due to natural causes, said Kenny Scollan, RurAL CAP division manager. Five people have been evicted, mostly due to violence. Some of that violence was caused by "spice," a quasi-legal, store-bought street drug inundating at least one rural Alaska village. In the aftermath of the violent outbursts, staffers have received training on how to spot people high on spice, Scollan said.

Karluk tenants drinking nearly half as much

The first goal for Karluk’s managers has always has been encouraging tenants to come home at night. As long as residents are resting their heads in each room, they feel they’ve accomplished a small, daily task.

So it must have been a pleasant surprise when the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage presented some positive findings on Karluk last week at an annual homelessness conference -- tenants are drinking less and making fewer emergency room visits within a year of moving into Karluk. Other findings:

• The number of Karluk Manor residents drinking everyday dropped from 71 percent to 36 percent.

• Drinking less resulted in fewer injuries, too; the rate of dental problems, head trauma and cuts declined.

• Two residents have maintained sobriety for extended periods of time, Scollan said. One of them obtained a nurse’s assistant certificate. She also learned how to ride a bicycle at age 50, hoping to rely on the bike rather than a bus.

At his worst, Thomas, an original tenant, drank three bottles a day. Thanks to cutting back for long periods of time, he can no longer drink that heavily, he noted.

Scollan said Karluk employees always encourage tenants to drink less. They do take tenants shopping and do not prevent them from buying booze. They urge the purchase of heavy beers, however. Tenants get full, faster.

Wasting time

On the streets of Anchorage, chronic drunks take up officers’ time and waste taxpayer dollars. The two groups interact a lot.

Before "K.C.” entered Karluk, the tenant had visited the emergency room or been picked up by officers 164 times over the past year, Scollan said. During the first six months of at Karluk Manor, the tenant had only been picked up four times, he said.

Another tenant identified as “G.J.” had been picked up 180 times over the past year. In his or her first six months at Karluk, the tenant was picked up by police or visited the ER twice, according to RurAL CAP’s data.

Some of the city’s alcoholics try to get arrested on purpose. Thomas recalled one of the first winters he was homeless: He entered an expensive restaurant, spent more than $300 on steak, crab, salmon and more.

When the check came, he told the waiter to call the cops, because he didn’t have the money to pay. Customers in the restaurant, without being prompted, pooled their money together and paid the bill -- not the outcome Thomas expected. He ended up needing a new plan to get another hot meal and somewhere to sleep.

Staff at Karluk Manor estimate that before arriving each tenant had an average of 100 interactions with officers, making the total number of instances spent with law enforcement some 4,600. That includes times they were thrown in the drunk tank as well as just talking to cops in other instances.

In its first year, officers responded to calls from Karluk 77 times.

Scollan said chronic inebriates cost about $60,000 a year if they’re on the streets -- and $22,000 a year if kept in housing.

Doubling capacity

RurAL CAP wants to expand Karluk and the number of people it serves. Although he never fully supported the project, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan now admits Karluk is helping.

“It’s enabling, but there is that segment who doesn’t respond to any other supports,” the mayor said in a previous interview. Drinking does decline among its occupants, he added.

Sullivan has been pushing for a larger project. He proposed an industrial spot in town, but the shipping company next to the lot railed against it. There are also five acres available in the nearby neighborhood of Mountain View, where a new facility would need to be built from the ground up. That could house double the number of tenants. RurAL CAP did not obtain funding this year.

Email Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com or follow him on Twitter at @jerzyms.