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S.L. hopes to cut woes of chronic alcoholics

Published: Saturday, March 24 2007 12:13 a.m. MDT

Steven Andrew Coombs is no stranger to Salt Lake City police or the Salt Lake County Jail.

Coombs is homeless and commonly found drifting somewhere between The Gateway and Sugar House. And most of the time, he is intoxicated.

Records show Coombs has been arrested and taken to the Salt Lake County Jail hundreds of times for public intoxication. Between 2002 and 2006, officers were called out to deal with Coombs more than 1,000 times. More than 600 of those calls led to him being arrested.

It isn't uncommon for Coombs to be arrested on consecutive days for public intoxication. He has even been arrested and sent to jail twice in the same day.

During a recent stretch between Feb. 27 and March 9, Coombs was arrested for public intoxication seven times. His most recent arrest was Thursday by Salt Lake City police.

Coombs is one of between two to three dozen people who represent a problem for Salt Lake law enforcers. Although their numbers may be small and most of their crimes petty, those two to three dozen people eat up a high percentage of the city's public service resources and are costing taxpayers more than $1 million a year, authorities say.

Salt Lake City leaders, led by City Prosecutor Sim Gill, Police Chief Chris Burbank, housing officials and Mayor Rocky Anderson, have been formulating a plan on how to deal with the city's chronic alcoholics — a plan designed to benefit the addicts and the community.

The city has already found success with its drug courts, mental health court and is expecting similar results with the new Sunrise Metro apartment complex aimed at getting the chronically homeless off the streets.

Additionally, about 18 months ago, government officials and service providers introduced a pilot program called Pathways to Housing aimed at helping the chronically homeless, many of whom also had substance abuse problems. Police helped identify 17 of the city's most chronically homeless citizens and gave them an apartment of their own.

"The idea is to not just give them a place, but also make them more productive in society," Burbank said. "It's a catalyst to get these people out of chronic drunkenness."

Prior to Pathways, those people cost police some $1 million each year for the times officers were called to a problem involving those individuals, Burbank said. Since the program began, he said the total cost to police now has been just $840.

The city has been exceptional in its approach to homeless and mental health issues, Gill said, but added that not every homeless person is an alcoholic.

"There's a lot of people homeless for economic reasons and not involved in any criminal activity at all," he said.

And while many of those areas cross over, he thinks more should be done to address the chronically drunk.

"We are not being fiscally smart in impacting this population," he said.

Nationally, there has been a push in many cities to help those with chronic alcoholism and homelessness. In December 2005, Seattle opened a complex with 75 apartments called the 1811 Eastlake Project. Those determined to be the most chronically drunk of the Seattle area were given a place to live where they could continue to drink.

Critics dubbed the program "bunks for drunks." But prior to the 1811 project, Seattle estimated each street alcoholic was costing taxpayers $100,000 per year. Now, police hardly see those people anymore.

Gill went to visit the 1811 Eastlake Project to see how the program worked. In Seattle, 14 to 17 percent of those considered chronic re-offenders were eating up 84 percent of the city's resources. Gill believes Salt Lake's numbers are similar.

"There's a disproportionate draining and use of these resources," he said.

Now, police and prosecutors have identified 34 of their biggest reoffenders and broken them into two categories: alcohol offenses and trespassing offenses. The goal is to look at ways to specifically help those groups.

Between 2002 and 2006, police dealt with those 34 individuals approximately 15,000 times, costing the city between $1.2 million and $2.5 million.

"If you can impact even a third of these people, you would have a huge systemic impact," he said. "The ripple effect of how it impacts systemically is huge."

The costs add up quickly. A typical call on an intoxicated person requires two police officers to respond. The city estimates it costs $347 just for police alone to respond to each call. Many times, however, paramedics are also called, adding another expense. Sometimes, those people are then taken to the hospital for a medical check and then given a ride to jail, where the estimated booking cost is $150. That cost does not include housing someone at the jail.

"There are multiple individuals that come in contact with this person. For each contact that occurs with this person, there is a financial cost associated with it," Gill said.

There are also costs that can't be added, like the impact an intoxicated person at a store may have on the business community plus the cost of pulling two officers away from a potentially more serious situation, Gill said.

"When we are responding to this person, we are not responding to other people," he said.

Rather than continue to "bleed away tax dollars," Gill said the city needs to be fiscally smart on how it deals with those who are chronically drunk. If these 34 people are using most of the city's resources, then the city may actually save money in the long run by putting more resources into specifically helping that small group, Gill said.

"This issue is not going to go away," he said. "This segment of the population deserves a greater infusion of resources. This is not only a law enforcement issue but also a community and social service issue and fiscal issue."

Gill said a change is needed in the public policy on how to deal with these offenders — an idea that is supported by the Pathways pilot project and the new Sunrise Metro apartments. Each takes a "housing first" approach to dealing with the chronically homeless, rather than making housing contingent on getting into services and sobering up.

"You really do need a community response to it because we are connected to it financially whether we believe it or not," he said. "I think the biggest mistake is politicizing this discussion when it's a community issue. There is a balance here. This is not a politically left or right issue, this is a community issue."


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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