By DONNA GORDON BLANKINSHIP
Associated Press Writer
Posted: Mar. 31 5:24 p.m.
SEATTLE — A program that gives homeless alcoholics a place to live and drink is saving taxpayers more than $4 million a year, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, endorses a "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.
But in some cases, the safe living situation helped residents to decrease their drinking or quit altogether, said lead researcher Mary Larimer, professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the University of Washington.
The University of Washington study followed 95 chronic alcoholics before and after they moved into an apartment building in downtown Seattle, as well as a control group on the waiting list for the building.
Researchers, who were not affiliated with the program, found the average monthly cost on taxpayers was $4,832 when each resident still lived on the street. Six months after residents moved into supportive housing, those costs dropped to $1,492 per person per month.
Even with the cost of the $11.2 million building, which was paid for by taxpayers and private donations, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center program itself, the program saves money, said Larimer.
Bill Hobson, executive director of the nonprofit center, said the finding has inspired his agency to look deeper into what could be done to encourage residents to sober up.
Clinical studies say a chronic alcoholic past the age of 45 has a 5 percent chance of recovery but given the early success of the program, "maybe the prognosis is not as bleak as we all thought," Hobson said.
The city has invested more in other "housing first" projects, including helping to pay for more than 200 units in buildings for homeless people who frequently use emergency services.
A program to house homeless Native Americans who have chronic drinking problems serves a similar population in Minneapolis.
Similar projects were being considered in New York, Atlanta, Fort Worth, Phoenix and Los Angeles, Hobson said.