SEATTLE - An innovative program that takes homeless alcoholics off the street and gives them a place to live without requiring them to stop drinking is saving taxpayers more than $4 million a year in emergency social and health programs, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, endorses the "housing first" approach that calls for putting homeless people in permanent homes with supportive services instead of requiring them to stop drinking and taking drugs to earn their shelter.
Researchers at the University of Washington followed 95 chronic alcoholics before and after they moved into supportive housing at the edge of downtown Seattle. They also kept tabs on a control group who were on the waiting list for the apartment building.
They found the average cost of alcohol-related hospital emergency services, the nonprofit "sobering center" where police bring alcoholics to dry out, and the King County jail was $4,832 per person per month while the 95 were living on the street.
Six months after moving into the apartment building, the average cost for these services dropped to $1,492 per person per month.
Taxpayer and privately donated money was used to build the $11.2 million apartment building. The nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center spends about $11,000 per resident a year to operate the building, which opened at the end of 2005.
Even with the cost of the building and the program taken into consideration, the program saves money, said lead research Mary Larimer, professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the University of Washington.
The study also looked at what happened to alcohol use for the people who moved into the building, where residents are allowed to drink in their apartments.
Contrary to expectations, the residents of the 1811 Eastlake building decreased their drinking after moving in. Some even stopped entirely, Larimer said.
Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said this finding has inspired his agency to start looking deeper into what it can do to encourage the residents to sober up. He thinks researchers will also be intrigued by this result.
Clinical studies paint a bleak picture of the likelihood of recovery for a chronic alcoholic past the age of 45 with multiple failures at rehabilitation, giving them only a 5 percent chance they will decrease the amount they drink, Hobson said.
"Maybe the prognosis is not as bleak as we all thought," Hobson said.
But Hobson emphasizes the main finding of the study: the project saves a significant amount of taxpayer money.
"I cannot think of anything that has happened to me in the last 20 to 25 years that has felt better than the vindication of this research," Hobson said.
Government officials and homeless advocates in other cities noticed, even before the research was published.
Similar projects are being considered in New York, Atlanta, Fort Worth, Phoenix and Los Angeles and delegations from those cities have traveled to Seattle to learn more about the project, Hobson said.
Seattle city government has also invested more in "housing first" projects. The city has helped pay for more than 200 units in buildings for homeless people who frequently use emergency services, including the severely mentally ill.
A program to house homeless Native Americans who have chronic drinking problems serves a similar population in Minneapolis.