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Homeless alcoholism drains city

The Biggest Little City gained notoriety in a 2006 edition of the New Yorker after two Reno police officers estimated that ignoring one of the city’s homeless chronic alcoholics cost the city more than $1 million over the years.

Malcolm Gladwell’s story quoted Reno police officers Patrick O’Bryan and Steve Johns explaining that Murray Barr, who died in 2005, racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in trips to the emergency room, jail time, ambulance rides and the criminal justice system because of his chronic alcoholism and homelessness.

Three years later, O’Bryan remains frustrated. Reno taxpayers are spending more money to manage chronic alcoholics than to solve the problem, he said.

Reno spends at least $15.5 million yearly to deal with homelessness, according to a 2007 study by the University of Nevada Small Business Development Center. Police said chronic alcoholics incur the highest costs of the homeless population and typically refuse the city’s homeless services.

But change could be on the way.

Police are seeking $400,000 in grant money to target homeless chronic alcoholics through treatment, housing and supervision. By fall, officials should know whether they’ve received the money for a Serial Inebriate Program.

Authorities are optimistic that the program can cut costs and spare emergency response. They recently met with medical and police authorities from San Diego who told them how their program, which began in 2000, saves their community millions of dollars each year by providing treatment and housing to participants. The threat of long jail terms compels chronic alcoholics to complete the program.

The San Diego success rate is about 40 percent after participants complete one year. Partnerships with local agencies is the key to the program’s success, they said.

Reno police have identified about 60 chronic alcoholics frequently booked into jail for homelessness-related offenses.

“The numbers may not be large, but they impact the entire system in a monumental way when you look at the costs,” said police Chief Mike Poehlman. “Ultimately, the taxpayers foot the bill when police respond, when the ambulance is called and when they go to the emergency room.

“These people are contacted by us nearly every day. If you multiply those costs by 365 days, it really adds up. And then they are released and get drunk, and the whole cycle starts again.”

O’Bryan said Reno resident Leonard Spotswood has surpassed “Million Dollar Murray” and continues to cycle in and out of hospitals and jails. Spotswood has been booked into the Washoe County Jail 104 times since 1991 for offenses related to alcoholism and homelessness, records show. Officials say a day in the county jail costs about $85; University of Nevada, Reno researchers estimated that it costs more than $1,000 to arrest a homeless person.

It’s likely that Spotswood has cost the community as much as $10 million, O’Bryan said.

Spotswood, who was incarcerated in the Washoe County Jail last week, declined to comment for this story.

“It’s an obvious waste of money, and the law is not the solution,” O’Bryan said. “How can we not address this blatant waste of money? These guys are killing us.”

“They do not pay for the costs they create, and there is no cure in just sending them out the door,” O’Bryan said. “What’s been going on has been the most expensive social service the community offers but generates the least true services. It’s like giving a skin cancer patient a prescription for sunscreen and telling them to have a nice day.”

Poehlman said chronic alcoholics create problems for business owners and tourists. When police officers respond to a call of a “person down” two officers arrive, as do a fire truck and ambulance.

Typically, a chronic alcoholic who has fallen will walk away after police arrive, O’Bryan said.

“We just flung $1,000 out the window for that,” he said.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, and Mayor Bob Cashell agreed that jailing the chronic alcoholic isn’t the answer. They said limited resources are being wasted and a program such as the one in San Diego would be cheaper.

“We need a solution,” O’Bryan said. “We are watching these people die, and our hands are tied. It doesn’t make any sense that we are paying all this money for our hands to be tied. It’s absurd.”

source: Reno Gazette-Journal

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