An Inside Look at Life in Anchorage’s Housing First Project, Karluk Manor (KTVA.com exclusive)
ANCHORAGE - After nearly a month of snowstorms and frigid weather, blue skies and balmy temperatures came as a welcome break for residents at Karluk Manor.
Standing in the snow in front of the wet housing facility for the chronically alcoholic homeless, Kurt Osterhaus and Darlene Kunayuk enjoyed the sunshine, snacking on miniature packets of tropical punch-flavored drink mix and cheap alcohol out of an old plastic LifeWater bottle.
Rocking back and forth in his worn work boots, Osterhaus ripped open another plastic pouch and tipped the sugary powder into his mouth, washing it down with a gulp of pungent smelling vodka.
His tan Carhartt jumpsuit was unzipped halfway down his chest to reveal a worn blue t-shirt with a tattered neckline, and his grey, shoulder-length hair flopped over his eyes.
Osterhaus called himself a jack-of-all-trades, but on Monday he was only doing one thing.
“I’m kind of inebriated,” he said, laughing. He rolled the bottle between the palms of his hands and watched as a maroon 12-passenger van used by facility staff turned off the road, idling in the driveway. An automated gate in the wrought iron fence surrounding the Manor opened slowly, and the van disappeared inside.
“That’s me!” Osterhaus said. He turned and stumbled through the gate after it, disappearing up the stairs towards his room on the second floor.
His apartment is one of 46 in the facility, operated by the non-profit Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP.) According to RurAL CAP eligibility standards, the residents are required to earn less than 30 percent of the area median income level and meet federal definitions for disability and chronic alcoholism.
Modeled after the “Housing First” model, pioneered in Seattle, the program does not require tenants to seek treatment for their addictions. Instead, a fact sheet posted on RurAL CAP’s website claims “Housing chronic homeless alcoholics IS treatment.”
“Research has shown that tenants drink less, they are safe and their use of emergency services is drastically reduced,” the document continued.
Local police and emergency service personnel know firsthand just how dangerous a life of homelessness can be. Since October 2008, 36 men and women have died on Anchorage streets. Three were murdered, police said, but the rest were killed by something else entirely.
“This is about the most telling part of the whole thing,” said Anchorage Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Dave Parker.
He flipped through a stack of papers containing the case information of every person lost on the streets over the past three years.
Printed in neat letters under the photos of the deceased were three words: acute ethanol poisoning.
Their blood alcohol contents (BAC) were also printed in bold fonts, and the majority topped .31. Parker said the few below that belonged to people whose bodies were found weeks after their deaths, once the alcohol had time to disappear from their bloodstreams.
He pointed to one picture, a smiling man with disheveled black hair whose BAC had been a .556 when he died of alcohol poisoning and a blow to the head.
“He slipped and fell down the stairway, but I’d slip and fall, too,” the police lieutenant said.
Another woman, 40-year-old Lena Joseph, had been found dead one morning last summer after spending the night drinking with her boyfriend under a container trailer in a Midtown mall parking lot.
She was also smiling in the picture in the police report, dark hair streaked with gray falling loosely around her face and framing a broad smile. Her BAC was measured at .726 when she died.
“If she lit a cigarette, she would have blown up,” Parker said.
For others, it doesn’t take that much, but police said alcoholism often goes hand-in-hand with life on the street. Standing in the early afternoon sunshine in front of Karluk Manor, Darlene Kunayuk said she’s been drinking Black Velvet since she woke up that morning with a pounding headache and queasy stomach in the Anchorage Safety Center, where the Anchorage Safety Patrol takes public inebriates to sleep off their drunkenness.
She shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her oversized red ski jacket, zipped over an army green raincoat that fell nearly to her knees. A green knit hat with earflaps and the word “Alaska” embroidered in chunky white letters across the front was pulled low over her bangs, and she hunched her shoulders against the slight breeze blowing up from the inlet
“I was drinking with my friends at the soup kitchen and I ended up at sleep-off,” she said, recounting the night before, when she blacked out and was picked up off the street by the Anchorage Safety Patrol. Kunayuk said she didn’t know how she ended up on the cement floor of the of the safety center with a BAC of .300, but Monday morning she said she had rejoined her friends in front of Bean’s Café for a hot lunch and a little hair of the dog.
It’s a cycle Karluk Manor administrators said points to bigger problems, traumatic histories and sometimes-troubled childhoods. Rocking back and forth in the snow, blue jeans tucked into her snow boots, Kunayuk said she’s lived through some traumas of her own.
Since she moved to Anchorage from her home in the rural Alaska village of Kiana almost 13 years ago, she’s bounced back and forth between shelters, street corners and hotel rooms.
Her 15-year-old son had taken his own life several years back, followed by her older brother, who she said hung himself while working at a contracting job in Kobuk. “He was just two years older than me,” she said.
With slurred words, she said the belt had been so tight around his neck it turned his face black and made blood trickle out of his eyes and nose, making it nearly impossible for rescuers to identify him.
Now, she’s living by herself on the Anchorage streets, trying to avoid an ex-boyfriend she said tried to kill her on more then one occasion. “He said he would slit my throat,” she said, recounting one drunken fight a few weeks ago. She said he held a knife to her neck and she had leaned into the blade, almost drawing blood. “I said, go ahead.”
Violence like that is what makes Karluk Manor so important, administrators said. A haven for its residents, background checks are run on all applications and violent and sexual offenders are prohibited from living there.
According to information posted on RurAL CAP’s website, the facility maintains a full staff of 24 employees. At least one of them is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, checking on residents and screening visitors.
But despite the constant monitoring, the screenings and the fences, police said the biggest danger to Manor residents doesn’t come from the outside. On January 1, less than a month after the housing project opened its doors to the first residents, 54-year-old John Kort was found dead in his room of apparent alcohol poisoning.
Melinda Freemon, the Manor’s director, declined to answer questions about Kort’s death, and would only release a written statement reading “In addition to his chronic alcoholism, he had multiple medical conditions and was in very fragile health.”
Police said they first received the call around 11:30 a.m that day. After Kort was found drunk and unable to stand in the Manor lobby earlier that morning, they said Manor staff had taken him to his room and put him in his bed.
Forty-five minutes later they returned to check on him, and police said the staff members found he had fallen out of bed and was passed out on the floor. They returned him to his bed and left.
When they came back to the room to check on Kort an hour later, he was dead.
Freemon said “all the procedures were followed” prior to Kort’s death, but would not reveal whether an attempt was made to get him medical attention after he was first found unconscious on the floor of his room.
Anchorage Fire Department officials said medics have responded to the Manor ten times since it was first opened December 8, and taken residents to local hospitals on six of those occasions.
While roughly 15,000 people are brought to the Anchorage Safety Center every year, where certified EMS technicians perform medical checks on every client, Freemon would not say whether the Manor employed its own medical staff, or what measures where taken in the event of a medical emergency like Kort’s. When a second man was found dead a month later, Freemon again declined comment.
Daniel Worthman, 46, was found in his room around 10:30 on the evening of January 31, and Karluk Manor staff would only say he died of natural causes.
But medical reports point to another cause: According to autopsy results, Kort died of acute combined intoxication, and while a final cause for Worthman’s death have yet to be released, preliminary reports point to complications from chronic alcoholism.
On average, nearly one person per month dies of alcohol related causes on Anchorage streets, police said, less than the current mortality rate at the municipality’s largest wet-housing facility.
Karluk Manor staff declined comment.
Back on the sidewalk outside the Manor, Kunayuk glanced pensively at the facility’s main door. She said she had come to visit her friend Roland, who had been drinking with her earlier in front of Bean’s. When she was denied entrance because she didn’t have identification, Kunayuk said Roland had gone inside to use the bathroom, and told her he would be back in just a moment.
She had been standing on the corner for more than an hour.
Roland had been pretty drunk, though, and Kunayuk said she wasn’t surprised when he never re-emerged from his efficiency apartment. Now, she said she might begin walking towards the transit center to look for some other friends. Maybe she would find Roland later.
“I dunno, maybe he’s passing out,” she said, peering up at the curtained apartment windows with blurry eyes.
It wouldn’t be the first time.