Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bob Shaw on St. Paul's Wet House

Hurry and read the Pioneer Press's excellent two-part series by Bob Shaw about St. Paul's "wet" house for homeless alcoholics, the St. Anthony Residence. (The PiPress has the annoying habit of taking down its stories after they've been up for 30 days.)

61-year-old Wayne Britton
Part 2 from today's paper focuses primarily on the cost savings, while last week's installment gave an introduction and told of the controversy over this approach.

Both parts of the series do a great job of putting a human face on the lives of these men who will not stop drinking even though it's killing them, especially in the profiles that accompany the two articles. Instead of sleeping outside and stealing or panhandling to buy alcohol, the men who live at the residence are given meals and a clean, warm place to sleep. They are allowed to keep alcohol at the main desk, which they can then drink on the outdoor drinking patio. A nurse checks in with them weekly to deal with their chronic health problems.

According to the story, the 60 residents have all been through multiple attempts at treatment, dozens or hundreds of detox stays, and countless visits to emergency rooms. Many have multiple DWIs and other convictions on their records.

The cost for a year at the St. Anthony Residence is $18,000, vs. $30,000 for a year in jail or much more for detox, treatment, or a hospital. Residence manager Bill Hockenberger says that some residents used to cost $100,000 a year, much of it borne by hospitals who can only pass it along to other patients in higher fees.

It's tough to say that it's better to allow someone to keep drinking, especially in a tax-subsidized residence. Critics from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Hazelden treatment centers are quoted as saying it's inexcusable to ever give up on someone. But folks who deal with the homeless, such as Katie Tulone of St. Paul's Dorothy Day Center, see it as a morality issue to house people even though they are drinking. As Shaw put it: "The men appreciate the care -- so are less likely to be self-destructive..."

One man, Phil Brendale, who was expelled from the residence for breaking the rules, has returned to the streets full-time. He lives in a wooded area near the State Capitol. Shaw writes of him:

Recently he walked into an emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital, worried about rectal bleeding. He was given an MRI to see what was wrong, but he never went back for the results.

"I know what they're going to tell me — quit drinking, quit smoking. You might as well tell me to quit breathing," Brendale said. "One day, we're all going to die. So, let me die happy."
It's hard to read that and know there is no solution for him. But I'm glad, both as a human and a taxpayer, that at least 60 other men who would have been in the same situation are living improved lives because of the St. Anthony Residence.


The Star Tribune covered Minneapolis's wet house in 2009.

Kudos to my Pioneer Press carrier, who managed to get the paper here on time both this morning and yesterday, despite our deep snow and impassible streets. Haven't seen the Star Tribune yet today.


Michael Leddy said...

I saw the first of these stories via a listserve for David Foster Wallace readers. I think I'm with you — better that there's a safe place for these guys than not.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

When I read the first one, I figured there would be a lot of negative comments... I never looked on line to find out for sure. It makes sense to minimize the damage, suffering, and costs associated with their behavior.

SuDawn said...

My father is a chronic drinker who has been through treatments at least four times and has now given up on ever stopping drinking... he was kept off the streets by living with and off my grandmother until he was old enough to get government subsidized senior housing... he functions slightly better than the men at St. Anthony's but he'll die drinking just as they will and I can whole-heartedly agree that St. Anthony's is a humane and loving solution to a problem I have lived with in my own family for the past 25 years (since I was old enough to realize my dad is an alcoholic.) I have gone to Hazelden for their family program and went to numerous family meetings - the ups and downs... alcoholism is truly a disease and sometimes it's a losing battle. Better to keep the peace than endlessly adding insult to injury. Shaw should be commended on a well-done article.