Star Tribune Story on Wet Houses

Written by Jeff Johnson on August 12, 2009. Posted in General

Last week’s Golden Fire Hydrant made the news today as the Star Tribune printed a lengthy story regarding “wet houses.” 

Wet Houses: Not Always Sober, but Safe

By Kevin Duchshere

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has no quarrel with publicly funded treatment for alcoholics. But he said he struggles with taxpayer money going to housing for chronic alcoholics that offer no treatment at all.

Not only that, he was surprised to learn, the so-called “wet houses” don’t even require their homeless residents to stay sober.

“I understand these people are very sick, but I don’t think that means you should expect absolutely nothing out of them,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to provide you housing, you should figure out how to stop being drunk all the time.”

I find it amazing how stupid a relatively intelligent person can sound when quoted verbatim.  I’ll take Kevin Duchschere’s word that I actually made the particular statement above, although I’d like to believe I’m a bit more articulate.  If I were allowed to edit this story (which for some reason newspapers don’t allow politicians to do) I would have said something more like, “If we’re going to provide you housing, we should at least be able to expect you to stay sober.”

A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), however, indicates that wet houses result in less drinking and save money by reducing the high costs of detoxification treatment, medical services and jail.

Then there’s the testimony of such residents as Denise Ellis, who said she has all but stopped using drugs and alcohol since moving into a south Minneapolis wet house in March.

“Here I sleep, I eat, I’m clean, and if I do choose to use, it’s not on a daily basis,” she said. “If I hadn’t applied for a place here, I’d probably be dead right now.”

Anishinabe Wakiagun (wah-KY-gun), the house where Ellis lives, is the focus of Johnson’s August “Golden Hydrant” award, his monthly tongue-in-cheek take on public spending that he considers wasteful.

Johnson acknowledges that Hennepin County spends comparatively little on Wakiagun — $39,000 this year — and he doesn’t dispute the studies that show wet houses save money. But he thinks it’s wrong to use tax dollars “enabling … destructive behavior,” as he recently put it in his “Hennepin County Taxpayer Watchdog” blog.

Wakiagun is one of at least four wet houses that receive funding through the state’s Group Residential Housing program, which provides room and board to indigent elderly and disabled adults.

Minnesota spent $3.2 million last year on the wet houses, which include the Glenwood in Minneapolis, St. Anthony Residence in St. Paul and the New San Marco in Duluth.

Last month, Olmsted County commissioners gave the green light to a Duluth firm that wants to build a 40-bed facility near the new county human services building in Rochester.

Wakiagun, a 45-bed home for homeless and alcoholic Indians, has operated since 1996. The rules there are simple: You can drink in your own room or off premises, but not in the common areas. What isn’t tolerated is violence and vandalism.

The house offers activities, such as weight lifting, table games and music, and it encourages development of residents’ spiritual and artistic side. Residents stay an average of 21 months, and most stay for more than a year.

According to the American Indian Community Development Corp., which operates the home with Project for Pride in Living, Wakiagun saves taxpayers more than $500,000 a year by reducing detox admissions, emergency room visits and jail bookings.

But for Mike Goze, the corporation’s CEO, the savings are only a secondary benefit. The primary goal, he said, is to provide a better quality of life and a safe place to live. A 12-step program generally won’t help a chronic alcoholic, he said, but Wakiagun residents often increase their level of sobriety despite the fact that they’re free to drink.

“There are some people intoxicated more than we’d like them to be, but there are a lot of people given the opportunity to heal and take inventory of themselves,” Goze said.

Said Steve Cramer, executive director of Project for Pride in Living, “It’s a place that does save money, but more importantly it helps that group of citizens live as dignified a lifestyle as they can. And that’s good enough.”

A detox study done last year at Wakiagun found that a number of residents reduced their trips to detox by 80 percent while living at the home.

To get a room, residents must have been homeless for most of the previous five years, admitted to detox at least 20 times in the previous three years, and have been treated at least twice for chemical dependency.

In the JAMA study, published in April, University of Washington public health researchers monitored 95 homeless chronic alcoholics before and after they moved into a wet house, and compared them with 39 others waiting to get in.

Before the wet house, the median cost of each of the 95 was $4,000 a month. After a year in the wet house the cost per person dropped to $960, mostly for housing.

Johnson isn’t persuaded.

“Saving money shouldn’t always be the bottom line,” he said. “If what you’re doing isn’t right, the fact that it might be cheaper in the long run doesn’t mean it’s the best outcome. … It seems to be spending money to help people give up on themselves.”

I received an email from a supporter who understood my concerns about wet houses, but argued that I was abandoning my focus on taxpayer savings with respect to this issue.  If it will save money, he argued, we should probably be doing it. 

My response: Principle trumps savings on occasion for me.  This would be one such occasion.  In addition, government only has so much money to spend.  If we spend dollars on wet houses, it means we are not spending it on actual treatment programs for alcoholics, some of which can be very effective.

‘Tired of being tired’

Some Wakiagun residents begged to differ.

David Charging Whirl Wind, 40, had been homeless for about 15 years when he entered Wakiagun last September. He said the home provides a supportive environment that helped him stop drinking five months ago.

“It gave me a safe place to sleep and rest my head, and something to eat,” he said.

Bonnie YellowFox, 53, lived at Wakiagun for five years and dried out before moving into her own apartment. Rent hikes forced her into motels, and she started drinking again, eventually returning to Wakiagun last year. She’s sober now, she said, and upbeat despite recent losses in her family and her battle with breast cancer.

“The place really helped me out, a lot,” she said.

Ellis said she started using drugs and drinking when she was 12. She admitted that she “didn’t know how to live sober” and that she fought with child protection officials to hang onto her three sons.

When she lost her kids, she said, she gave up. For 12 years she was on the streets, taking risks and doing what she could to get money for her habit. Wakiagun, she said, has given her a chance to clear her head and to imagine a future for herself and a reunion with her boys.

“I’m tired of being tired,” she said. “You just can’t live like that. I always said I wouldn’t get past 45, and I’m 45 now.”

Bottom line for me: Regardless of whether this saves some money for taxpayers and occasionaly leads to sobriety for a resident (which is the rare exception from my reading on this topic) it is wrong.  It enables very destructive behavior for most of those involved, it completely abandons any concept of personal responsibility and it is funded by taxpayer dollars that could be spent on programs that actually provide treatment or counseling to those who are chemically dependent.

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