Study Shows Drinking Goes Down in ‘Housing First’ Facilities

Photo courtesy of RurAL CAP: Leona Haakanson-Crow

Recent studies show that housing street alcoholics is cheaper than letting them fend for themselves. But a new study shows that’s not the only benefit — they’re finding that tenants also drink less. KSKA’s Daysha Eaton takes us inside Karluk Manor in Anchorage, where we meet one tenant who has already stopped drinking and is trying to turn her life around.

At the corner of 4th and Karluk the gray building formerly known as the ‘Red Roof Inn’, is home to 46 chronic inebriates. Since it opened in December, two tenants have died. But managers say that’s to be expected after the stressful years they’ve spent on the streets.

“Having a place to live transforms lives. And that’s what we are here for at Karluk Manor. We’re here to help people reconnect with their health and well-being and revitalize their lives,” Director of Supportive Housing Melinda Freeman, said.

Karluk tenants are required to pay at least 30 percent of their income toward their $700 per month rent. Most units are supplemented by subsidies. In addition, all tenants are required to volunteer four hours a month – cleaning or doing community service. They also get two free meals a day in the on-site cafeteria.

Karluk is run by RurAL CAP, a non-profit that works to improve the lives of low-income people. One of those people is Leona Haakanson-Crow.

Before coming to Karluk, Leona was camping out with a group of homeless people beside the Muldoon Fred Meyer. Leona is one of eight people who have stopped drinking at Karluk even though its allowed.

“I haven’t had a drink since I’ve been here,” Leona said.

From Kodiak, Leona’s high cheek bones and tawny skin hint at her Native heritage. She’s Aleutic and Scandinavian. 39 of Karluk’s 46 residents claim Alaska Native heritage. The average tenant has tried to get sober 19 times before coming to Karluk. And for most of them, it was their drinking that led to their homelessness, including Leona.

“Last time I had a home was in Sitka and it was about four years ago. I was with my husband and we both fell off the wagon and I ended up in treatment in Fairbanks and before I knew it I was in and out of homes and shelters and treatment centers for the remainder of three and half years to follow that,” she said.

The rooms aren’t much. Just a basic studio with a bathroom, more like a dorm room really. After several years on the streets of Anchorage, to Leona, her room at Karluk seems like a miracle.

“When I got here, I couldn’t believe what I had and I was very grateful. One I was off the street. I was in from the cold. I’m able to take a bath or a shower and I’m able to lock the door. I’m not afraid to go to bed anymore,” Leona said.

Recent studies of ‘housing first’ facilities like Karluk show that giving a street alcoholic a home can cut costs. One new study out of Seattle shows that tenants actually reduce their drinking. Susan Collins is a researcher with the University of Washington Harborview. She published the study in the January issue of the peer reviewed American Journal of Public Health. She and her team tracked tenants drinking for the study over two years to test something she calls the ‘enabling hypothesis.

“That’s the widely held assumption that allowing alcohol dependent individuals access to alcohol and not insisting upon 100 percent abstinence will enable people to drink more and more and their drinking will eventually spiral out of control,” Collins said.

Collins did her study on a 75-unit ‘housing first’ unit facility in Downtown Seattle, where tenants are allowed to drink in their apartments. What she found was a 35 percent reduction in heavy drinking. A handful of people even quit drinking all together.

“I think the take home point is that our findings really show that chronically homeless people with alcohol problems are human beings who are very capable of making positive changes in their lives if their given the same chance as the rest of us, and that getting that chance really starts with having a home,” Collins said.

The UAA Institute for Circumpolar Health will be conducting their own study of Karluk Manor over the next two years, with funding from The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.

Back at Karluk Manor, Leona says having a home again is helping her get focused on something other than drinking. She’s getting in touch with her Native heritage through crafts.

“These are what you call spirit pouches. This is made out of cedar or sinew, this one here, and you wear this as a necklace. To me it makes you feel special,” Leona said.

She says it’s important to be emotionally and spiritually fit to make the pouches, and now that she’s getting sober, she hopes she’ll be making whole lot more of them.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.