Places like Dann’s House in Traverse City focus on preventing harm instead of cutting people off from their vices cold turkey.
Dann’s House is named after the brother of the facility's current board chairwoman, Karen McCarthy. He died at 45 after battling alcoholism and homelessness.
Today, McCarthy said the facility houses five men, but over the years they’ve had as few as four and as many as eight.
Dann's House doesn't limit the amount that the men drink. McCarthy said they’re free to choose just like anyone else.
But given autonomy and the comfort of a home, she said, many of the men have significantly reduced their alcohol consumption.
Some even go on to leave Dann’s House for permanent supportive housing or independent housing, she said, and some get sober.
Sites like these have cropped up across the United States and have been referred to as “wet houses,” but McCarthy said they reject the term.
“(The residents say) that it makes it seem like there’s nothing about them except their drinking,” she said. “We just say Dann’s House.”
Founded by a recovering alcoholic
Dann’s House founder Greg Stone, 67, a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober for almost 31 years now, said he was working with addiction treatment programs focused on abstinence when he started thinking about another approach.
He said he started running into former clients in downtown Traverse City who had fallen off the wagon and couldn’t receive services from local programs because they had broken facility rules.
“I kept running into these guys that were homeless, living on the street, living under the bridge, that could not access services and part of me... I kinda got a little angry,” Stone said.
After stumbling upon a video called "No Losers" that highlighted the New San Marco in Duluth, Minn., where residents could still drink on the premises, Stone said he decided that this was something his community needed.
He organized a meeting at a church in 2011 and brought together representatives from emergency rooms, law enforcement, treatment and recovery groups, plus interfaith groups.
There wasn’t exactly an outpouring of support.
“Boy oh boy, there was a lot of negative… oh my goodness, you (would have) thought I’d asked the devil to come to dinner," he said. "But there was support."
Stone was able to band together a group of supporters who pulled research together and worked on how to make this happen.
Stone initially created a nonprofit called Stone’s House and planned to dub the wet house Marvin’s House after his father, but was inspired after a local resident named Dann died after struggling with homelessness and alcohol dependency.
Karen McCarthy said her brother was “beautiful in every way that a human being can be beautiful” and that he lived to help people.
While living in a tent toward the end of his life, McCarthy said, her brother fell asleep with wet boots on and got frostbite on a very cold night, which led to the loss of all of his toes.
Afterward, he continued to help people and immediately went to volunteer at all of the places in town that served the homeless, she said.
“He helped other people as much as he could, but he could not recover from his disease,” she said.
Stone said grants from Rotary Charities of Traverse City helped pay for the board training and organization they needed. A grant from the Michigan Department of Community Health funded renting and reworking their space on Veterans Drive.
Since the house opened in 2014, Stone said, it has continued to be supported by private fundraising, plus grants from charities and organizations.
McCarthy, chair of the Dann’s House board, said her team oversees policies, procedures and development
Traverse City Chief of Police Jeffrey O’Brien and Mayor Jim Carruthers also serve on the board.
There are two staff members and five volunteers who have experience working with people who have substance abuse disorders or who have experienced homelessness, McCarthy said.
Staff members check in with the men a few times a day, see how they’re doing and what they need, take them to the grocery store or to appointments, and sit with them.
They also have a case manager through Goodwill that helps residents make plans for their lives, while also talking about things like health care, benefits and Social Security, she said.
They have no medical staff, no medical programming or treatments because the home is just a residence.
“People are permitted to drink in their home… it’s not a treatment program, it’s not an emergency shelter,” McCarthy said. “It’s just where people can live who have been chronically homeless and who also have severe and persistent alcohol use disorder."
Seattle, Duluth provided models
McCarthy said Dann’s House was inspired by similar housing models in Washington and Minnesota.
The first of the "Housing First" experiments launched in 2005 with 1811 Eastlake in Seattle, and another set up in Duluth in 2007 at a site called the New San Marco.
The University of Washington conducted studies on the population at 1811 Eastlake and found that this approach lead to “increased housing stability, reduced use of publicly funded services and associated costs, and short-term reductions in typical daily alcohol use.”
In the year before joining the program, subjects incurred $8,175,922 in costs of services for jail bookings, time spent incarcerated, shelter and sobering center use, hospital services, publicly funded alcohol/drug detoxification and treatment, emergency medical services and Medicaid-funded services.
The study found that public costs generated by the individuals in housing decreased by 53%.
In a two-year analysis of 95 individuals housed at 1811 Eastlake, researchers found that the mean for peak drinks consumed fell from nearly 40 to 26.
McCarthy said the same kind of progress is evident in Traverse City.
“Everybody who lives at Dann’s House drinks a half or less than a half of what they used to drink on the street. They volunteer, they have jobs. The important thing is, they start taking care of their health. They start going to the doctor. They start making appointments and keeping appointments with doctors and dentists, and even counselors,” she said.
After their first year of operation, McCarthy said they went through boxes of police reports and pulled cases that involved their residents both prior to the opening of Dann’s House and thereafter.
“In the six months before we opened, there were 93 police calls for service on our residents for things like trespassing, drunk and disorderly, that sort of stuff. In the year that we opened, there were three police calls for service on one of our residents… he would still go downtown and get loaded and get in trouble, but one of those police reports said, ‘Gave the subject a ride home' and this man hadn’t had a home in 15-18 years. Pretty remarkable,” she said.
Police Chief Jeff O'Brien, vice chair of Dann's House board, said that when he was a sergeant, police would get recurring calls for service primarily for men that were intoxicated and incapacitated.
O'Brien said police would take them to the hospital but end up seeing them again later in the same shift.
"We would take them to the hospital and then within a five- to six-hour period, they would be back on the street drinking again," he said. "Working a 12-hour shift, we would deal with them two, sometimes three times during a shift. So it was definitely a problem, because they were taking up probably 50 percent of our calls for service."
Dann's House has made a difference for the residents, he said.
One individual came with hundreds of recorded contacts with law enforcement dating to 1991 for petty crimes like larceny, contempt of court, probation violations and marijuana possession, he said.
After being housed in 2014, the individual has only had two contacts with law enforcement. In one incident he was a victim of an assault, and in the other, he was a witness.
"That's been the trend with Dann's House," he said. "Calls for service have gone down on that particular population."
In the home, the residents can often be seen gathered together and talking about who’s going to the store, who got their food stamps and what they’re going to get for dinner.
“They all knew each other from the street anyway… they already slept with each other under the bridge, they already saved each other’s lives,” he said.
If the men had income, Stone said, the agreement was that they would contribute to rent by paying 30 percent of what they had, but income was never a factor in whether or not they could stay.
“Their condition was the factor,” he said. “Their need was the factor.”
When one of the early residents passed away after finding out too late he that he was sick, Stone said the house was able to provide him comfort in his final moments.
“He passed away in a bed. He didn’t pass away on the street… that’s success,” Stone said.
Dann’s House only serves men, but McCarthy said they would eventually like to open a home for women.
“We intend to keep Dann’s House open as long as there’s a need, and so far there’s a need. We hope to serve as many people as we can,” McCarthy said.
Southeast Michigan programs give aid
While there are no programs in southeast Michigan like Dann's House, there are a number of places that won't turn people away if they've been drinking — plus offer programs geared toward housing and rehabilitation.
Kathy Goodrich, executive director of the Macomb County Warming Center in Mt. Clemens, said that everybody that comes gets the same services, whether or not they've been drinking.
“We don’t ask them if they’re an alcoholic or anything like that… we take them all in,” she said. “If they’d been drinking, we just try to get them something to eat.”
However, Goodrich said they are very careful about making sure the people in their shelter do not consume illicit substances, alcohol or any drugs that are not prescribed for them while in their care.
Goodrich said they sign folks in and put away any bags or belongings they’re carrying for the night.
“Anything they want to keep for the night, we look at that,” she said. “Most of the things we lock up for the night.”
They also work in the same building as the Clinton Counseling Center, which focuses on substance abuse counseling, and Goodrich said they've also sent individuals to rehab centers if needed. Goodrich said they house 59 people.
However, Goodrich said they help many people find stable housing.