Liberal lunacy mandates ‘drunk dorms’ as homeless cure

By Michael Medved

In the midst of budget shortfalls, soaring deficits, service cuts, park closings, library shutdowns and desperate calls for emergency tax increases, bureaucrats in one of America’s most allegedly enlightened cities plan to spend $8.7 million on comfortable new apartments for homeless drunks.

In what they acknowledge represents an “unconventional approach” to the problem of inebriated street people, Seattle officials plan to combine federal, state, county and city funds to build 75 units in a trendy neighborhood. The alcoholic tenants will enjoy three months of free residence, and heavily subsidized rent thereafter. They will also receive two free meals a day, along with access to a registered nurse, substance-abuse counselors and a mental-health professional.

Best of all, from the point of view of homeless advocates, the new facility will allow its residents to consume liquor in their rooms, and to invite limited numbers of guests to join them. David Higdon, a 51-year-old “chronic alcoholic” interviewed by the Seattle Times, applauded this generous approach and explained his preference for getting drunk in his own room to collapsing on the sidewalk. “It’s much less dangerous,” he sagely observed. “If I drink too much, black out and fall down in my room, there is less chance for me hurting myself than if I’m outside. Also, I’ve been beaten up and robbed when drinking on the street. That doesn’t happen inside.”

The new taxpayer-funded “drunk dorm” has yet to earn a formal title – though on my radio show I suggested that city officials consider such alliterative appellations as “Transient Towers,” “Vagrant Vistas,” “Alcoholic Arms,” “Bum Bowers” or “Inebriated Estates.”

While Mayor Greg Nickels emphatically affirmed his support for this visionary project, several prospective neighbors planned a concerted attempt to block construction. Officials of a nearby hotel, the newly constructed $27 million SpringHill Suites By Marriott, object to the unfortunate fact that half of their 234 rooms will look down directly on the drunk dorm’s back decks, so that tourists can watch local wildlife indulge the publicly funded right to party. Partner Robert Sours guessed that word would spread among travel agents that finicky visitors to the Northwest might not enjoy the unusual view, and the hotel would lose business. “If we had known something like this was moving in across the alley, we would have never built the hotel,” he candidly declared.

Another neighbor, Northwest Trophy, expressed similar indignation. Owner Rob Anderson, whose family has conducted their business for three generations and 24 years at the same site, lamented that “this takes our property value and puts it in the toilet.”

The insanity behind this project involves the punishment of citizens who engage in constructive, desirable behavior – like building businesses and creating jobs – for the sake of rewarding those who persist in reprehensible and destructive activity – like passing out drunk on street corners. Supporters of the costly new apartments (which will require continued annual subsidies of at least $650,000 after the initial investment) insist that their radical approach is needed because it represents the only possible way to “lure” chronic alcoholics off park benches and sidewalks.

Of course, those of us who remember a more sensible era in American life might suggest another lure for the soused street people: the prospect of a paddy wagon, handcuffs, the billy club and an alcohol-free cell.

Fifty years ago, no one bought the idea that society needed to offer an appealing package in order to persuade drunken bums to give up their claim on public spaces. Every major city enforced laws against vagrancy and public drunkenness. The resulting encounters with the criminal justice or state hospital systems (often through involuntary commitment) may not have led in every case – or even in most cases – to sobriety and personal renewal. But arresting street drunks communicated the idea that no one had a right to befoul our shared spaces, to camp out on streets or parks at a cost to hard-working citizens whose tax money financed those very facilities.

Until the wrong-headed de-institutionalization reforms of the 1960s, police departments, private charities, medical institutions and private businesses worked together to push vagrants – quite forcefully, if necessary – into shelters, rescue missions, hospitals or the care of embarrassed family members as alternatives to jail.

The main beneficiaries of the old efforts to avoid tramp-infested downtowns weren’t rich people – since plutocrats could always retreat to their gated communities and acres of private gardens. Working-class and middle-class Americans, on the other hand, depend on our civic streetscape and green space for both their livelihood and relaxation.

Homeless advocates, who thrive off the endlessly prolonged misery of their “clients,” react indignantly to the very notion of clearing transients from the streets and squares, but ignore the obvious fact that the current situation hardly serves the bums themselves. If generous, liberal and wildly expensive public policies actually worked to “cure” homelessness, then why do the most homeless-friendly cities (San Francisco comes instantly to mind) continue to boast the largest – and constantly expanding – populations of chronic vagrants?

Even Santa Monica, Calif., which famously hosted public-feeding programs for transients from the steps of city hall, recently enacted controversial reforms to crack down on the seaside town’s enormous “homeless community.” Isn’t it obvious that providing benefits like free meals and free accommodations for a troubled group of people only encourages the expansion of that subculture within a given municipality?

With the ongoing controversy over the ludicrous idea of erecting a new apartment complex for street alcoholics, Seattle may indeed lead the way for the rest of America – but not in the way city leaders intended. The proposed drunk dorm won’t provide a bold new model for the rest of the country to follow, but it may constitute a glaring example of bureaucratic lunacy spectacular enough to inspire a nationwide reappraisal of our appallingly illogical approach to homelessness.