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Controversial homeless shelter allows drinking, drug use

Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 22, 2013 at 10:30 PM
PUNTA GORDA -

Jason Waters, a 20-year-old former club bouncer who goes by the nickname "Fat Boy," has a mental illness and is addicted to cocaine and marijuana. When he became homeless he lived in the woods on the outskirts of Port Charlotte. None of the nearby shelters would take him for long because he broke the rules by getting high.

A month ago he moved to Kelly Hall, a new shelter in Punta Gorda for the mentally ill and the first in the region to embrace a controversial model of allowing residents to continue drinking and using drugs during their stay for up two years. If the program is successful, the health group that operates it says it will try to open others, possibly in Sarasota.

"It goes against conventional wisdom," said Jerry Thompson, president of Coastal Behavioral Health Care, the nonprofit group running the program. "But in the worst-case scenario, someone stays for two years and continues using, it's still cheaper to taxpayers than all the nights in jail and all the trips to the emergency room if they were out on the street."

The theory behind the center is rooted in a tenet of psychology that has only recently taken root in efforts to address underlying causes of chronic homelessness: that rehabilitation cannot be forced. Stable housing, consistent meals and access to doctors and counseling will hopefully lead residents to get help, Thompson said.

The research is promising for Kelly Hall, a peach-colored ranch house that holds up to 52 people in rural southern Charlotte County. It models a national strategy credited with driving down the nation's chronically homeless population by 30 percent between 2005 and 2007 -- the first significant drop in decades.

Called "housing first," the Department of Housing and Urban Development embraced the movement about five years ago after it was shown to be successful in New York. According to a study of the programs by New York University, 11 percent of homeless residents left the housing first program without seeking help, compared with more than half of those in other types of rehabilitation programs. The study also showed that residents were three times more likely to abstain from heavy drinking.

In addition, smaller studies have shown that the cost of housing-first rehabilitation can save taxpayers anywhere from $40,000 to $56,000 per homeless person annually, mostly by avoiding the cost of jail and emergency medical services.

The government defines "chronically homeless" as someone who is disabled, including being mentally ill, who has been unable to find housing for more than a year. They make up about half of all homeless people, and about a third of them also have substance abuse problems. The population has been notoriously difficult to reach, which is why supporters of the strategy say it is worth the risk that participants will never decide to seek recovery.

"For a lot of these people the substance abuse is the only thing left of their identity," said Lisa Shiers, who oversees the Kelly Hall program. "Ask them to give that up, ask them to get treatment, and they would rather stay on the street."

Residents of Kelly Hall are not allowed to use drugs and alcohol at the house, but they are not turned away if they come drunk or high. Staffers are on site, and surveillance cameras scan the common areas at all times.

Other requirements of residents are minimal. They do not have to take medications, see doctors or wake up at established times and look for jobs. They are asked to help clean the house and prepare meals, but are not required.

Waters is one of 15 residents to join the program so far. He has been there for a month but had only been sober, as of Wednesday, for 12 days.

"I've been trying to stop using for three years," he said, preparing to eat a lunch of hot dogs and french fries in the house kitchen. "They encourage you to make good decisions here, but if you make a bad decision, if you go out and drink or use, you can still come back. It makes you feel good. They believe you when you say you're trying."

Housing first, which is also called "safe haven" housing, is more common in large cities, and in Florida the majority of the 275 beds that fall into this category are located in Miami. Kelly Hall will boost the state stock 15 percent.

Securing funding for the special facilities is the main barrier to having more of them, said Tom Pierce, director of the state office of homelessness. Federal grants are still limited, especially for smaller rural areas such as Charlotte County, and the concept is not always embraced by communities being asked to pay for it.

The $1 million to build Kelly Hall was partly offset by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which reimbursed Coastal Behavioral Health for the destruction of the property when Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, when the center was used to house boys in the juvenile justice system. The storm also helped secure a $365,000 state grant, which was awarded partly because the overall homeless population increased in Charlotte County after the storm, Pierce said.

Even if the model is successful in Charlotte County, it could have a more difficult time gaining support elsewhere in the region.

Sarasota Police Chief Peter Abbott said he had doubts about the concept of a facility that housed substance abusers without requiring treatment.

"I don't think that would work for everyone," Abbott said. "There are some people who have already had that chance over and over again and it hasn't worked."

Robert Piper, a mental health counselor and administrator of Sarasota County's primary addiction rehabilitation program, First Step, called the Kelly Hall program "brave."

"It's the kind of idea you agree with, but you're afraid to say you're in favor of. A lot of people out there think, if you're not going to stop drinking or using, why should we spend a dollar on you? They think it's molly-coddling reprobates," Piper said.

First Step sends homeless substance abusers to rigorous rehabilitation programs at the Salvation Army, which do not allow residents to use drugs or alcohol. After 10 weeks they are assisted with housing where they are also required to be sober. About 75 percent of people complete the initial part of the program.

"In Sarasota, what we have are a lot of programs for you if you're succeeding, but if you're not succeeding there's nothing for you," Piper said. "Those are the people who you see on the street. In recovery it's two steps forward and three steps back. You don't get well immediately."

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