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Early Research on Karluk Looks Hopeful

By | October 14, 2013

Karluk Manor, an apartment complex for homeless alcoholics in Anchorage, has been open nearly two years. Officials say the program is starting to make a difference. Preliminary findings by researchers at University of Alaska seem to confirm their observations.

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It’s almost mealtime and Bob Thomas is getting ready to serve the 46 residents of Karluk Manner dinner.

“Hot dogs, buns, entrees, all the relishes.”

Thomas works four days a week, eight hours a day and makes less than 10 dollars an hour.

Karluk Manor Facility. Photo by RurAL CAP.

Karluk Manor Facility. Photo by RurAL CAP.

“I clean up after lunch and dinner and then I wipe the tables, sweep and mop,” he said.

Thomas not only works at Karluk, he’s also a resident. The 52-year-old became homeless in the Spring of 2000 after his mother, whom he’d been living with and caring for, passed away. Her house sold within a couple of weeks. Before he knew it, the grief-stricken son, was on the street. He set a tent up near Cheney Lake. More than a decade of alcohol-fueled problems, cold nights and scary situations followed.

“Kids would come by and throw rocks or booby trap the tent,” Thomas said. “Like one time we were camping and there was kids right by our tent and they were throwing butcher knives from each side at our tent.”

He bounced from camp to camp – Cheney Lake to Muldoon, downtown and back again.

He tried other programs to get sober and get off the street, but nothing worked.

In December 2011, Thomas was one of the first residents to move into Karluk Manor, a housing first facility for homeless alcoholics who are not yet ready to quit drinking. Now he says he’s sober.

Helen Fleming is proud of the progress that Thomas and other residents like him have made. She’s the housing supervisor at Karluk. The majority of residents have reduced their drinking, she says, and now some are beginning to address other problems.

“They then start addressing some of the mental health issues that might be going on,” Fleming said. ”That happens a lot, because so many of the people that come here have been drinking to self medicate the mental illness that they’ve been suffering with for many years.”

“We have people seeing the therapist, seeing the doctor, seeing the psychiatrist, getting medications.”

Janet Johnston, an Assistant Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Alaska Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies says preliminary data from a study she’s working on backs up what residents and employees of Karluk are seeing.

“Since the numbers are small I have to stress that this is really preliminary, but we have seen some changes in the frequency of drinking,” she said. “So we’ve got a larger percentage of people who are drinking you know once a week or less in the follow up than we had at baseline and a smaller percentage who are drinking everyday.”

Residents of Karluk are also using the emergency room less and instead getting medical care through regular doctor’s appointments, Johnston says. The preliminary results of the Karluk study do not surprise Melinda Freeman who manages the program for Ruralcap.

“Well, I’m very, very excited about the growth and potential that we’re seeing in the tenants at Karluck Manor,” Freeman said. ”We studied this model for several years before we attempted to get the funding and the money to rehab the building so we were very prepared to launch a housing first program in Alaska.”

It costs approximately $1 million per year to operate Karluk Manor. The money comes in part from the residents themselves, 30 percent of their income is used to help with costs and rest is a mix of federal sources.

Studies of housing first facilities in other states show, on average, residents reduce their drinking by 30 percent once they have stable housing. Thomas says he’s grateful to have another chance.

“I’m working on being a success story, and I know of at least two or three other people in here,” Thomas said. “They say when you get housing first that you reduce it by 30 percent; well, I’ve probably reduced mine 80 percent.”

As a result of reducing his drinking, Thomas says he’s getting healthier. And setting goals. In addition to his job at Karluk, he also does day labor construction. He’s paying back child support from missed payments while he was homeless. Through the phone in his room he’s reconnecting with his three grown children and getting to know his grandchild. He’s stopped drinking but sometimes falls off the wagon he admits. He knows his sobriety is tenuous.

“When I was homeless all that time I was drinking three fifths a day everyday, but now I can’t even drink one fifth,” he said. “Six weeks ago I was trying to drink a bottle but my tolerance is so low now that I didn’t even get halfway through it, but I just caught myself and turned it right back around because I just look out there and I don’t want to go back to that again.”

Thomas says he’s focusing on staying sober for now and reconnecting with family. But he says he hopes to eventually get his drivers licence back, buy a truck and start his own business.

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