Friday, March 18, 2011

Tanana Chiefs Conference Proposes Their Version Of A "Red Nose Inn" For Homeless Inebriates At Former Westmark Hotel In Fairbanks

It looks like the controversial plan to transform the Red Roof Inn in Anchorage into a "Red Nose Inn" for homeless inebriates is spreading to Fairbanks. The Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), a traditional tribal consortium of 42 villages of Interior Alaska which is based on a belief in tribal self-determination and the need for regional Alaska Native unity, proposes to purchase a 62,000-square-foot hotel which has been owned by Westmark and Best Western and convert the $2.5 million building into a “Housing First” model for homeless care. That approach, which is already offered in several other cities and is also slated for Anchorage, accepts homeless inebriates as residents without requiring that they stop using alcohol.

However, TCC doesn't merely envision using the facility for local inebriates; they also want to use it to provide temporary housing for Interior village residents who travel to Fairbanks for medical care. Funding for the project is dependent on receiving a $1.8 million grant from the Alaska Finance Housing Corp. The rest of the purchase price could be paid off through reimbursements from Medicaid and other agencies with a projected $100,000 annual operating income. Fairbanks North Star Borough Planning Director Bernardo Hernandez said he hasn’t seen a formal presentation about the proposed facility but said the residential complex would likely be allowed under zoning rules in the area. So far, there hasn't been any noticeable organized opposition, unlike in Anchorage where Downtown Assembly candidate Ron Alleva has been leading the opposition there for over two years. Comments posted to the News-Miner story already indicate a mixed reaction

Supporters of the Housing First model claim homeless inebriates are more receptive to help after they’ve found stable housing, but opponents criticize the idea because it confers a benefit upon these people without extracting a matching preliminary commitment from prospective clients by enforcing a sobriety requirement on the premises. The Pathways To Housing website provides more details on the Housing First model and attempts to show that it is more cost-effective and successful than other models; they calculate an average municipal cost of $57 per capita per night as opposed to $73 for traditional homeless shelters.

The Housing First model is not a total freebie for clients; according to the Anchorage Daily News, the Anchorage proposal, which would transform the Red Roof Inn into the Karluk Manor, would strictly control overnight guests. Residents would pay rent; loitering and panhandling outside the building would be forbidden. There would be daily supervision and access to health care and other social services.

But despite the heralded success of the program in other cities, the failure to impose a sobriety requirement in advance remains troubling because it conveys the appearance of a giveaway program in which we're saving people "in their sins" rather than from their sins. It makes it appear that we are allowing mercy to rob justice. It also assumes that inebriates are capable of "social drinking". This is a flawed assumption; inebriates operate in only two modes; drunk or sober. Many recovered alcoholics will tell you they can't afford to take even a single drink for fear it will become a full-scale binge. So what this means that once an inebriate starts drinking, he doesn't stop until he is drunk.

A better approach would be to couple a sobriety requirement with a "three strikes rule". Enforce a sobriety requirement, but do not evict a client for a first infraction. Evict them only after being caught with alcohol on the premises three times in any 90-day period, for example. This would best integrate justice and mercy.

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