For years, Anchorage has tolerated the behavior of chronic street alcoholics. Many give money to the panhandlers, who often use the cash to buy alcohol, which they drink in their camps hidden in the wooded areas around town.
But this year, the problems with street drunks have become more visible. In October, the pastor of the Holy Family Cathedral set aside his homily and spoke out against the physical attacks against priests on church property, as well as sexual acts and people who relieve themselves outside.
Father Anthony Patalano told the parish that the homeless today are different than those the church welcomed in the past.
Some homeless advocates say the priest is right – that years of hardcore drinking, in many cases, decades, have taken their toll on street alcoholics, who suffer brain damage and mental health problems. Another factor could be that the ranks of the homeless are growing. The Brother Francis Shelter and other programs are seeing more people in need.
Against this backdrop, those who work with chronic street alcoholics, say there’s a bright spot, Karluk Manor, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Anchorage Police say the tenants who live in the housing project in Fairview are not nearly the problem they were when they lived on the streets.
“I’ve talked to several officers recently, and it’s amazing to hear their stories, seeing the people who used to be real problems for them on the street.” says Lt. Dave Parker, a spokesman for the Anchorage Police Department. “They see them coming and going from Karluk Manor, and they look so much better than they used to.”
One of those is Ed, a Native American man who asked that we only use his first name. In the year before Ed moved into Karluk Manor, he had 60 calls for public safety services. But this year, he only had five.
RurAL CAP, the non-profit which operates Karluk Manor, estimates that people like Ed cost the city of Anchorage more than $60,000 a year. And to house Ed at Karluk Manor costs about a third less.
Most Karluk Manor opponents object to the fact that Ed and the other residents, which have numbered around 40, are allowed to drink alcohol in their rooms.
“People are concerned. Are we enabling people to kill themselves?” said Melinda Freemon, director of the supported housing division of RurAL CAP. “Will it be a magnet for other neighborhood chronic alcoholics who are homeless. Will it impact our business? How will it help the problem in Anchorage?”
Freemon says it’s still too soon to answer a lot of those questions with certainty. That’s why RurAL CAP has two University of Alaska Anchorage studies researching the impact of the program on both the tenants and the neighborhood.
But Freemon says many of the tenants appear to be drinking less, which is what happened at the Eastlake apartment project in Seattle, the “Housing First” model for Karluk Manor.
Ed, who still drinks, says he’s drinking less since he moved in. “A lot less, actually.”
As we followed Ed to his room, we encountered other tenants who were clearly intoxicated. Ed walked past them, ignoring the slurred, loud and rough sounds of their speech.
“I don’t have one big dream,” said Ed. “Be healthy. That’s one dream. It’s a small dream.”
A small dream, maybe. But if Ed could regain his physical and mental health, it would be a huge accomplishment.
Since he got out of the US Army after serving in Iraq, his alcoholism sent him on a downward spiral. He lost complete contact with his family in Wyoming and spent 15 years in the tent camps of Anchorage.
Ed suffers from post traumatic stress from what he experienced during the Gulf War. He says the fear of being attacked at a camp or waking up dead only made him want to drink more.
Ed told us he would regularly wake up from a night of drinking not knowing exactly where he was. He would usually find a friend to turn to, who would say, “’You hung over? Here. Help yourself.’” (Next Page)
As Ed recalled the conversation, he acted out the furtive gestures, holding an imaginary bottle to his lips. But now he doesn’t have to drink outdoors; and if he does get drunk, at least he knows where he is – in a warm bed. But increasingly he’s waking up sober.
“Here, I ain’t scared to go to sleep,” said Ed. “I get up and I got clean clothes. But when you’re out there, you tend to give up hope. Right now, I’m working on healing myself.”
RurAL CAP says Ed is making a lot of progress. He’s accessed a lot of programs he didn’t know about when he was on the street and he is now stable enough to take advantage of them.
Other homeless alcoholics that are not at Karluk Manor have noticed how Ed and other tenants have improved.
“They’re not walking around in a stupor anymore,” says Virgil Bryant Bradley, who just got out of prison. Bradley says most people don’t realize it, but the homeless often drink to excess in the winter to help numb themselves from the cold.
“My belief is that providing safe housing is a form of treatment,” says Freemon, who points out that most of the tenants of Karluk Manor have been in and out of programs that require abstinence, only to see their alcoholism grow worse.
“Housing is the top intervention,” according to Freemon, who says having a place to live has helped Ed considerably. “He looks so much healthier. He is so much more present.”
Despite Ed’s steady improvement, he still finds it hard to trust people. He doesn’t like to socialize much and prefers to be alone. But while we were visiting him in his room, he took a phone call.
“It’s my daughter,” he said excitedly.
Ed told us that one of the best things about being at Karluk Manor is that his stable life here has helped him to reconnect with his family. He has a picture of his granddaughter on the bulletin board by his bed, along with a snapshot of the proud day he returned home from the Iraq war. In the photo, he is standing next to tribal leaders in full regalia, wearing feathered headdresses, to honor his service to his country. Somehow Ed, on his journey out of homelessness, has managed to hang on to this tattered photo. But most of his treasured possessions did not survive life at the camps, where belongings were often packed up and carted away by police and clean-up efforts.
A few of the tenants at Karluk Manor have improved enough to begin working part time or to start job training. Ed says he’s not ready to do that yet, because his main job now is to work on himself. He says he needs to be more consistent in his sobriety in order to be employable.
But staffers at Karluk Manor say they can see that he’s trying hard.
One of his coping skills is to write about his days in the 48th Airborne Corps. He has a notebook full of pages recounting his experiences. One of them describes his homecoming.
“Behind the glass door, I saw my little daughter. They opened the door. She ran to me. She smiled. I gave her a hug. And finally I smiled. I’m home,” he wrote.
And Ed is home once again in his room at Karluk Manor. But now he’s on the inside of a safe building, looking out instead of the other way around.