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Chronic alcoholics rebuild their lives in Alaska, one step at a time

Suzanna Caldwell
Bobby Uina was homeless for years before finally getting his own apartment with the help of the Pathways project. Pathways to Sobriety is a municipal program that offers chronic homeless inebriates the opportunity to recover through intensive case management, which helps bridge gaps between services. Loren Holmes photo

Bobby Vina came to Alaska with no worries about finding a job. After growing up in Hawaii, at one point he had three different contracts on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, doing construction work. By all accounts, he was making more money than he knew what to do with.

But with all the money came lots of hard partying. More money meant more booze. Before he knew it, he found himself on the street and living in a tent, battling the cold and his chronic alcoholism.

“The life I was living was not a great one,” he said.

That was six years ago. Today, Vina lives in a modest one-bedroom Spenard apartment, has two jobs and a Post-It note in his wallet, with the date of his sobriety -- Sept. 27, 2011 -- humbly written in pencil.

It was two years ago that Vina, now 47, sought help for his alcoholism through Pathways to Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one program that deals with chronic alcoholics living on the streets of Anchorage.

Now the program, part of the Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, is looking to expand. The goal, according to Case Manager Debbie Flowerdew with Pathways to Recovery, is to provide more outreach to more of the city's “Top 200” -- the group of chronic inebriates that consistently make up 50 percent of the Anchorage Safety Center's intakes.

Stories like Vina's are ones Flowerdew hopes to replicate. These days, Vina is working hard with his two jobs -- one at a local Sam's Club and another at a mini-storage in Spenard. He’s hoping to get training that will earn him a better-paying job on Alaska's North Slope. He said it's still a challenge to remain sober and avoid toxic habits, but one that's ultimately worth it.

“I really wanted my life back,” he said.

A success story

The Pathways project has deep roots in Alaska. The project was developed to stop the “revolving door” of chronic users of the Anchorage Safety Center – the municipal-funded, NANA-operated, sleep-off center for public inebriates. The center sees thousands of clients each year, though for the last decade or so, the “top 200” clients have made up half of all its intakes.

The reasons for using the center and other social services are complex, as are the answers for reducing the problem.

But the Pathways model has made strides. According to a 2008 report -- the latest available -- the project, initially called “Pathways to Sobriety,” was lauded for its comprehensive approach to helping chronic inebriates. The study found that of the 253 clients Pathways helped between 2006 and 2008, 81 percent completed detoxification. Of those, 58 percent found permanent housing. Safety Center -- then called the Transfer Center -- visits were also significantly reduced among the population served by the program.

The model uses intensive case management instead of a housing-first approach -- like Anchorage’s Karluk Manor, which has seen a steady decline in drinking since it opened two years ago. The management system means constant care and followup from program managers. Flowerdew said she and coworker Shari Clayton often will spend years with clients who have been sober a long time but fear relapse.

“They don't want to let go of that link,” she said.

Learning lessons

Richard Miller is among them. He's been sober 20 months now. Just last month he moved into a small, one-bedroom house he lovingly calls his East Anchorage “cabin.” On a chilly Wednesday morning, he met with Flowerdew, who brought him several printouts on different professional trucking classes he could take. He'd like to get a job driving a bus on Alaska’s North Slope, but knows that his situation is difficult. He's a felon, who spent six months in prison for assault after he attacked a man who had threatened his girlfriend.

Miller, 49, moved to Alaska a decade ago from Yakima, Wash., to work seasonally at the canneries. An alcoholic since age 13, he said he got used to the cycle of working for the canneries, only to come back to Anchorage to drink, camp in the woods and occasionally use services like the Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter before being kicked out. He spent four years living on the hill below Grubstake Auction in Anchorage's Fairview neighborhood, a well-known homeless encampment that’s near social service providers.

It took going to jail for Miller to realize he didn't want to keep drinking. Despite a binge right after he got out, he soon met with Flowerdew, and through a lot of hard work and little luck, he got into a treatment program at Nugen's Ranch in the Mat-Su Valley in just three days, unusually quick.

“It took a while for me to get in trouble,” he said. “But there was no way I could stop.”

After months in treatment -- both at Nugen's Ranch and a rehab facility in Sitka -- Miller is trying to get on his feet. He'll be the first to tell you it hasn't been easy. He still deals with rage issues that have plagued him for years and struggles to find work because of his felony conviction.

But he takes pride in the small house he has. It's immaculately clean -- the bed made, dishes neatly put away and a small stack of science fiction novels stacked neatly on the nightstand. There was even a tin of freshly baked cookies resting on top of the microwave. That’s a far cry from the days when Miller would go a month without a shower.

Immaculate cleanliness is not unusual among Flowerdew’s clients. “They're proud of their housing,” she said. “They really respect it.”

For Miller, staying sober boils down to making choices -- staying away from old friends who could suck him back into bad habits.

“It comes back to choices,” he said. “I could go pick up one of my babies and have a rip-roaring party.

“But I could lose my freedom. I could lose my life.”

And that's not something he wants to do.

The same goes for Angie Muese. She just moved into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in East Anchorage. After four years of living on the streets, addicted to meth and alcohol, she's reunited with her five children -- all between the ages of 3 months and 14 years.

She's been sober for three years now and is looking for a job. Her small apartment is sparsely furnished as she waits for assistance to help her buy a table and other furniture. Muese, 31, often thinks of how easy it could be to revert back to her old way of living; doing drugs, sleeping in cars and using other social services. But she's reconnected with her kids, and that's worth it.

“The lazy thing, the old things, it just holds me back,” she said. “But going through the challenge is way better than what I had before.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell