Bunks for Drunks...Bringing Back Asylums!

07/07/2006 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"We're paying for them to live there... sitting around all day in publicly subsidized apartments and drinking." Tucker Carlson is apoplectic during his WNBC talk show earlier this week. "That's a dream for winos. That's a dream for a lot of Americans. I think that Kevin Federline essentially does that."

He's talking about 1811 Eastlake Drive, a Seattle group home for 75 alcoholics in which the residents are allowed to drink as much Mad Dog as they like. No questions asked. Seattle has the reputation for being a laid-back yuppie paradise among conservatives.

(Mad Dog, aka MD 20/20, is a fortified wine that comes in various flavors: "Pink Grapefruit," "Wild Berry," and "Hawaiian Blue." The alcohol level varies by flavor).

The four-story project, which costs $11.2 million dollars, and was paid for with city, state and federal dollars, has provoked considerable local opposition as well.

"It's a living monument to a failed social policy" said John Carlson, a conservative local talk show host. It's "aiding and abetting someone's self-destruction."

Ironically, the driving force for the project is economic reality not compassion. A 1999 study of 123 chronic inebriates found that they cost society more than $100,000 per person in emergency room costs alone. The new project costs less than $13,000 per resident per year with 24 hour staffing. High level members of the Bush administration have supported the initial funding as a way to save long terms costs.

The county identified 200 of the most severe alcoholics who had been randomly ricocheting through jails, hospital emergency rooms, and social service outreach programs. A lucky seventy-five were offered permanent homes - studios - in the new apartment building.

The quality of life at 1811 Eastlake is being studied by researchers at the University of Washington.

The project is a step in the right direction in an area where we have historically gotten everything wrong. For too long we have both coddled and ignored this woeful segment of our society. On the one hand we have been mean-spirited towards them and cruelly let them drink and drug themselves to death on our urban streets. On the other hand we have allowed them to destroy the quality of life in our public spaces, with panhandling, loitering, petty crimes, urinating and defecating in public.

They often live outside the existing laws because the police don't want to deal with foul smelling vagrants who will seldom show up in court or pay fines.

Homelessness and drug addiction are certainly not a new phenomenon. Public health historians estimate that between 4 and 8 percent of the population of all societies is dysfunctional because of addiction or mental problems or both; a percentage that has remained constant throughout recorded history.

In American, the most abused drug by far is alcohol.

What is new is the additional 400,000 mental patients out on the streets with little support since we closed most mental hospitals over the last three decades.

Freedom proved to be a grim gift for many of the helpless souls. Today many of these brazen, troubled people are imposing their bizarre private hells on the rest of us.

The reality is that most single, homeless street people are alcoholics, drug addicts and/or psychologically impaired. They self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.

Most of these unfortunate souls desperately want help, but their illnesses prevent them from taking it. If going to a clean warm bed in a shelter or enrolling in a social program means giving up alcohol or drugs, they simply can't do it.

The project at 1811 Eastlake Drive is an attempt to deal with this problem.

It's all very logical. These woeful homeless people are almost impossible to treat.
They refuse to stop drinking and abusing drugs. What should we do about them?
Leave them out on the streets to die? Leave them out on the streets to foul our neighborhoods?

Nationwide 125,000 drug addicts and alcoholic die every year. These people have a disease that is as real and deadly as cancer; at some level, most people recognize this.

But there is something about the concept - of supporting drunks who drink - that offends the Puritan moral sense of most Americans. They simply can't believe that chronic winos and drug addicts don't have a choice.

There is a mean streak in the Christian values of the American character, when it comes to alcoholics and drug abusers. The idea of taking care of the obviously sick and the dying doesn't seem to cut it. Where are the right-to-lifers when you need them?

This modern day asylum - a refuge - seems to solve a multitude of problems both for society and the individuals themselves.