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How the 'wet house' concept came to the county board

By Paul Fleissner

In Minnesota, counties are required to pay for detoxification services, a portion of chemical dependency treatment for public clients and a portion of costs for clients who are committed to programs with chemical addictions.

These costs are growing rapidly, and rather than throwing property taxes at the problem we are recommending a new approach that has worked in other communities.

We believe some of the models in other communities provide a more humane and cost-effective model for serving people over the long haul. Olmsted County will have more than 800 people receive detoxification services this year at a cost to local taxpayers of over $800,000 per year.

We recently did a study of our top 58 users of detoxification services over 18 months, and we discovered the following costs to our community.

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Law enforcement — $75,478

Social Services — $154,920

Treatment and Detox — $747,243

Medical (publicly funded) — $1,189,603

Courts — $22,440

Total: $2,189,684 or $2,097 per month per person

These are mandated services we have to provide under current law. These top 58 users are responsible for about 33 percent of all of our detox costs. Communities with housing projects like we are proposing have experienced an 80 percent decrease in these costs for individuals receiving this support. The San Marcos Project in Duluth is the newest example.

The projected monthly support for the program is $1,490. Our current monthly costs (that we can track) are currently $2,097. An 80 percent decline would suggest our break-even point is $1,687 per person per month.

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I am not the expert on the bricks-and-mortar portion of this kind of project, but I do know that the funds we are seeking can only be used for projects as part of Gov. Pawlenty’s goal to end long-term homelessness. The funds are competitive and we have been told we have the kind of project they like to fund.

No local tax dollars are built into this project, but we are going after state tax dollars already set aside for this purpose. Other communities like Duluth have tapped into this funding source with great results. We hope to do the same.

I hear and read the comments about "drunks" and that they are getting what they deserve. They are our neighbors who happen to have an addiction that has led them into a terrible place. Most of the folks we serve that have reached the point of homelessness have had traumatic events in their lives such as abuse, divorce, layoffs, deaths of friends and family or they have experienced the many traumatic events of war.

Do we want our local law enforcement dollars being spent hauling chronic alcoholics to detox because they don’t have a place to sleep? Or would we rather see those dollars spent curbing gang violence in our neighborhoods?

Do we want to continue to provide "housing" to chronic alcoholics in our detox center at the cost of $287 a night? Or would it make more sense to house them in this facility at a service cost of $50 a night?

Does it make sense to continue to tie up our already overburdened court system committing people to go to treatment they have been through a dozen times before?

Chronic alcoholics need support to live responsibly. Supportive housing and the services provided will encourage that responsibility. It will be a foundation on which we can build trust, hope and dignity in their lives. Residents will contribute their personal income to the cost of living there. They will have to follow rules. It is not a free ride.

I believe there is a business case for serving these community members in a new way and I know there is a humane reason for serving these people in a new way. I would encourage you to learn more by going to our Web site and watching the San Marcos video to learn more about why my staff and I are bringing this idea to the county board. Just go to www.olmstedcounty.com and click on the community services department home page to watch the video and learn more.

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We can continue to pour money into treatment, detox, unmanaged health care, courts, social services while using up valuable law enforcement time or we can try something new.

I would suggest we compete for these dollars with other entities so we can continue to build a safe, thriving and inclusive community.

Paul Fleissner is director of Olmsted County Community Services.

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