After attending a lecture on “Understanding Addiction,” many of us left Town Hall wishing that there had been more discussion on what’s happening in Seattle right now regarding “street addiction” and how to face it as a community.
Bill Hobson has been the Executive Director of DESC (which prefers to be known as its acronym over it’s name… just like KFC) for 25 years now, and has been involved in Pioneer Square for over 30 years. He was the founding board member of a few different neighborhood boards and associations and has a real passion for the downtown core of Seattle.
In his experience, Pioneer Square and Belltown have the largest numbers of homeless — Hobson says that his organization is “committed to getting people out of Pioneer Square.” DESC is now located in 6 different Seattle neighborhoods from South Seattle to Belltown, with a new building planned for South Lake Union. “Neighborhoods for the most part are understanding and willing to listen when our clients do something that’s injurious to the neighborhood,” he said. “They just want to hear how DESC is going to fix it when it does happen.”
The favorite child of the “harm reduction approach” in Seattle is 1811 Eastlake, a project that has received extreme positives and negatives in the news (all archived on DESC’s site). Before 1811, drunks would pass out on the street, be taken by ambulance to an ER, treated, and kicked out on the street, only to repeat the cycle again and again. After 1811, the cost to the public was drastically cut, and 1811 has experienced major successes.
Myth: The only way to approach an addiction is abstinence
Hobson gave me a statistic that makes the above statement very difficult. If you take an individual over the age of 45 who has a history 15 years of chronic “street alcoholism” and who has had 6 or more failed attempts of conventional treatment, they have a less than 5% chance of achieving sobriety. It’s important to not lose sight that there’s a small subset that conventional treatment simply does not work for.
Myth: Alcoholics wouldn’t accept housing even if it was offered to them
When this idea began back in 1998, DESC asked the city for a list of 200 names of the most expensive individuals that frequented Harborview Medical Center. They had 75 spots to fill, and only needed to ask 79 to fill the need. Two of the individuals who turned them down simply didn’t believe that they would be able to drink onsite. After vacancies opened up, they changed their minds and moved in. Even social workers who feel that this is a population that doesn’t want to be housed, DESC has proved that you can house anyone, given the right circumstances. Other centers/housing projects will ask an addict to move in, on the condition that they stop drinking or using – and their automatic response to “no” because it’s not something they’re willing or able to do. 1811 allows them to drink in a safe environment, and works to help them reduce and potentially to quit.
DESC’s approach and how they measure “success”
DESC’s approach to drugs and alcohol is as follows: “If you’re using in the privacy of your own room and that’s all you’re doing – we want to treat that as a clinical issue instead of a property management criminal justice issue.” Hobson feels that drug laws are a little over the top and that it should be a public health problem instead of a criminal justice problem, even if it would increase the levels of addiction – at least it was being dealt with in a different manner than criminalizing the addiction.
They also don’t track a “success rate” as far as how many people they get off of the streets – he says that it’s meaningless to do that. Instead, they just continue to provide services and wait for more affordable housing to show up so that they can place people.
1811’s real success
Hobson gave an example of their approach – say someone comes in who is used to drinking a certain amount of hard liquor – they try to take them from hard liquor to 6 beers – then to 6 light beers – then to 4 light beers, and so on. He said he didn’t want to go all mushy on me, but they “let them start to feel life and to think about what life was like when they were healthier.”
The goal for this project was never to save the taxpayers money – but they have. By $4 million. But that’s not the most surprising outcome – Hobson was even surprised that some of the 1811 residents are getting better. In a study of 95 residents over a 24 month period, alcohol consumption was reduced by 30% and even 11% achieved sobriety. Hobson says this says a lot about conventional drug/alcohol treatment and that it challenges the opinion that abstinence is the only way to get over addiction.
Creating more responsible neighbors
One of the items that is included in the lease of any DESC resident is the stipulation that they don’t panhandle in the neighborhood or “piss in a planter box.” (although probably not in that exact language). Hobson says they are strongly encouraged to recognize the fact that it is their neighborhood now and they should take care of it. He is not an advocate of excusing crimes just because they are homeless, an alcoholic, or on drugs. “They should still be held accountable for their behavior, under the influence in particular.”
New project coming to SLU
Hobson is working with the SLU neighborhood to build an 84-unit complex that will target the mentally ill (50-55% will have co-occurring substance abuse problems). He says that South Lake Union has been wonderful to work with – to the point that they have even written letters of support for capital financing options for the new project.
Typically neighborhoods cause major problems when they announce locating a complex in the area. 1811 took 7 years from start to finish because of all of the obstacles they faced. When looking for where to locate a new project, they look for a place that will help stabilize people’s lives – and the best place to do that is a stable neighborhood (aka not Pioneer Square or Belltown).
What can members of the community do?
- Hobson was very adamant that one of the most important things is to vote for politicians that promise to increase taxes and use a portion of that to create permanent, “supportive” houses. Because the reality is, and Hobson is willing to admit this – having them on the streets degrades the livability of the neighborhood. “Human service advocates don’t want to admit that, and I find it sad that they won’t.
- They can help by insisting that the community develop proven, responsible responses to this issue.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m sold on the idea and I definitely support more of these centers being built (just not in Pioneer Square. And you can’t get mad at me because Hobson agrees – it’s too concentrated and not stable enough). In the meantime, remember that “once you understand the what, you will figure out the why.”
In the meantime, there are incredible people out there who have already figured out the “how.”
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