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A Homeless Shelter for Alcoholics
Getting Chronic Drunks Off Deadly Cold Streets

Listen Listen to Joanne Silberner's report

"Peggy and Robert spend most of the money they get on alcohol. When their clothes get too dirty, they go to the Salvation Army and get new ones. They get food from nearby restaurants, or from the soup kitchen. They also use public health clinics, or the emergency room. Occasionally police or emergency workers have to step in, and once in a while they spend a night or two in a hospital."

-- NPR's Joanne Silberner



July 21, 2003 -- Most homeless shelters turn away chronic alcoholics if they won't stop drinking. But in the harsh winters of northern cities, that can be a death sentence. NPR's Joanne Silberner profiles a community group in Minneapolis, Minn., that has pioneered a new approach -- longer-term housing, where residents can drink every day.

Peggy, a Native American, lives with her partner -- and fellow alcoholic -- under some tarps on the banks of the Mississippi. "Peggy and Robert spend most of the money they get on alcohol," Silberner says. "When their clothes get too dirty, they go to the Salvation Army and get new ones. They get food from nearby restaurants, or from the soup kitchen. They also use public health clinics, or the emergency room. Occasionally police or emergency workers have to step in, and once in a while they spend a night or two in a hospital."

The last thing Peggy wants to do is go to a shelter -- she lives outdoors, to keep drinking. But that could be a death sentence: During a five-year period in the mid 1990s, 55 Native Americans died on the streets of Minneapolis. Some froze to death.

In the wake of those deaths, Gordon Thayer of the American Indian Housing and Community Development Corporation considered another possibility for chronic public inebriates: housing where the homeless would be allowed to keep drinking.

The shelter, named Anishinabe Wakaigun, opened in 1996. "Kelby Grovender runs it -- and he no longer has to turn drunks out into the cold," Silberner says.

The building was designed to make people comfortable inside, even if they've lived in the open for years. The rooms are airy, with big, bay windows that residents tend to leave open, even in the winter. Alcohol counseling is available but voluntary for residents.

One researcher estimated the cost for chronic public inebriates at about $25,000 a year. The cost for each Wakaigun resident is about $15,000 a year --- most of which is paid by residents' welfare or Social Security benefits.

"But there are still people like Peggy and Roberto outside," Silberner says.


Other Resources

American Indian Housing and Community Development Corporation




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