The New San Marco gives Duluth alcoholics a helping handby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Several cities and the state of Minnesota have pledged to end homelessness, and they're trying various means to tackle the problem. In Duluth, a new building just opened up, for homeless people who are struggling with alcoholism.
Organizers hope the San Marco will not only improve the lives of the people who live there, but make downtown business owners happier too.
Duluth, Minn. — The New San Marco is a brand-new brick building that's replaced a dilapidated old flop-house. Neatly planted shrubs border the outdoor smoking area. There's a security office at the entrance. The lobby feels like a no-frills motel, with big windows that let in a lot of light.
In one wing, there are 40 efficiency apartments for long-term homeless people. The other wing has 30 rooms for chronic alcoholics.
Upstairs in the section for chronic drinkers, it's sort of like a college dorm with linoleum floors and long hallways.
Counselor Kim Davies follows the sound of laughter to Geoff's room, where half-a-dozen people are gathered for a morning beer and a friendly chat. At the San Marco, residents can have alcohol in their rooms, and sometimes they're drunk.
"Geoff's kind of the social hub, is that fair to say?" Davies says. Geoff agrees. "And everybody likes to come up here and visit Geoff," Davies adds.
One of Geoff's visitors, Alice Wakemup, asks Davies to walk with her down the hall.
Her room is painted green. She's decorated it with framed photos of her family.
"That's my daughter, that's my grandson, those are my sons," she says proudly.
"They're so happy you're here," says Davies. "It's just really great. 'Mom's here, she's safe.' "
"I may be drunk one day and the next day I'm... " Wakemup pauses.
"Sober for days," Davies finishes for her.
Wakemup was on the streets and in shelters for years before the San Marco opened six weeks ago. Now her family can visit her here.
In Michael Johnson's room, pictures of eagles and pelicans occupy the walls. Johnson says now that he's got a home, he seldom goes downtown to hang out with his old drinking buddies.
"People are asking me downtown, 'Where you been?' I have no reason to go downtown no more," he says. "You know, I'm off the streets, and I don't even go downtown no more."
That's just the kind of thing Kim Davies loves to hear. The new idea behind the New San Marco is "harm reduction." It's based on the recognition that some alcoholics may never be able to quit drinking. But it is possible to reduce the harm they do to themselves, and to society.
Gary Olson is Kim Davies' boss. He runs the non-profit Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment.
"It's not realistic to move somebody from homelessness to some kind of sustained recovery in one leap," he says. "It's kind of like leaping Mount Improbable. We really need a first step, a platform, upon which people can make that initial change. Just moving from homelessness to housing is a big change, and that's the beginning of it, and then perhaps address their addiction."
The approach is based on the experience at Anishinabe Wakiagun in Minneapolis, a 10-year-old program that provides a home for Native Americans who are chronic alcoholics.
The San Marco is open to anyone, but many of the residents are Native Americans.
Olson says the Duluth project set out to house the people who present the biggest challenges. Each one has tried treatment for alcoholism at least three times, and been admitted to the detox center at least 20 times. Collectively, the 20 people at the San Marco have been in detox a thousand times in the last four years.
"These are people with a long, long history of both drinking and efforts at dealing with their drinking," Olson says. "They're at that point in their addiction where the next step is to die. Those are the people we targeted first, to try to save them from dying on the street."
Here they can get three meals a day in the dining hall. There's a nurse on staff to help them keep track of their medicines, and to encourage them to get medical attention when they need it.
That should reduce the number of trips to the emergency room -- an expensive way to get medical care.
And it's a lot cheaper to house them here than at the detox center. The San Marco costs about $1100 a month, compared to $200 a day at detox.
Most of the residents are on Social Security disability. They turn most of their monthly check over to the San Marco, keeping a little more than $100 for personal needs. The state makes up the difference between what they pay and what it costs to live here.
The rules allow drinking, but Gary Olson says having a home encourages people to moderate their drinking. He says street people tend to drink hard liquor because it's easier to carry.
"What's portable is vodka, in a small bottle," he says. "And so one of the discussions is, 'Now that you have a home, you don't need to carry around a small bottle of vodka.' And they can identify, 'If I drink vodka I get crazy; if I stick to beer I'm fine.'"
Since the San Marco opened six weeks ago, a few residents have broken the rules -- mostly by verbally or physically attacking staff members. They've been asked to leave.
After a few days they're given a chance to come back. That's what happened with one man, who punched a staff member, and spent two weeks on the street and at the homeless shelter. He was scheduled to move back in, and that morning he called Kim Davies from the hospital.
"Okay, Lori said she'd come and get you," Davies tells him. "And I'm really sorry to hear you got your jaw busted."
The San Marco site manager, Lori Reilly, will pick him up at the hospital. She says he suffered larger consequences as a result of breaking the San Marco rules.
"Since he's been out he's been incarcerated, he's been in detox, and now he's been assaulted. In twelve days. This is how vulnerable these guys are on the street."
She says he's vulnerable. He probably got into a fight, but was so drunk he couldn't defend himself. She's hoping he learned his lesson by being on the street again.
"And we've done this with other individuals, and they're real successful when they come back, because they have something to compare it to," Reilly says.
Every Friday night, Kim Davies calls bingo games in the dining hall.
The prizes include toiletries, knick-knacks from garage sales, and loose tobacco in styrofoam cups.
Residents have to be reasonably sober to play. They cheer each other on, and after each game, the winner picks a name from a hat -- that person gets a prize too.
One man, who declined to give his name, says he's a diabetic who's spent a lot of time in detox.
"One time I didn't eat for like four days, and I got really sick and I ended up in hospital," he says. "My kid said, 'Dad, I don't want you to die on me.' Then the social worker brought me from the hospital here to stay. I like it here. I can be myself, I have my own room. There's a place to stay for me. I'm safe."
He says he's drinking a little less than he used to, and his stress level is way down.
Downtown Duluth business people say it's too early to tell, but they're hoping that having fewer alcoholics on the street will improve the liveability of downtown.
Police officers say some of the San Marco residents still get into trouble sometimes, but it's a lot quicker and easier to get them back home than to register them at the detox center.
The people who run the San Marco say they're probably providing for about half the chronic alcoholics in Duluth who could benefit from supportive housing.
- All Things Considered, 07/04/2007, 5:50 p.m.