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Erik Burgess, Published July 13 2013

Sobriety, timeline optional at two local transitional facilities

FARGO - Joe Baglietto was barely 18 years old when he illegally hopped his first train out of Southern California and started a long spree of homelessness and drinking.

It was easier than dealing with the sexual abuse he suffered at home as a child. The trains and the liquor made for an easy escape.

At least, he thought so at the time.

At 45 years old, Baglietto is a different man. Sleeves of tattoo ink cover both arms and constellations of stars dot either side of his neck and face. Years of the “train tramp” lifestyle were hard on his teeth. When he laughs, which he does often, it’s all gums. The bottle is long gone, too. Baglietto is sober – still an alcoholic, but sober. And his life really started to turn around, he says, the day he moved into Cooper House in north Fargo.

Cooper House, a 42-unit apartment complex for the chronically homeless at 414 11th St. N., opened in May 2010, and unlike many housing programs for the homeless, residents there can drink and aren’t required to seek treatment. There is no deadline – only a bed, a roof and maybe some beer in the fridge.

The idea is called “housing first,” which F-M leaders modeled after examples nationwide. The concept is that the substance abuse and mental health issues many chronically homeless people face can be better tackled once a permanent residence is established.

Officials who run Cooper, and the similar 24-unit Gateway Gardens apartments in Moorhead, say a “permanent supportive housing” program allowing drinking can be a crucial in ending homelessness.

Cooper House, which cost $3.8 million to build, is owned by investors and Beyond Shelter, a local nonprofit, but it’s publicly operated by Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Gateway Gardens, at 1817 1st Ave. N., is publicly owned and operated by Clay County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Despite initial concerns that Cooper would cause neighborhood issues, only one complaint has been lodged against the Fargo complex in more than three years, and the facility has saved the city money, according to one study.

Tenants living in Cooper for 12 months after it opened used about $200,000 less in community services compared to when they were living on the street in Fargo, a 2011 Eide Bailly study shows.

The hardest to house

Though the facility allows drinking, Baglietto can’t touch the stuff anymore.

He says he wanted to sober up before, but it wasn’t until he moved into Cooper that he could accomplish that, as well as work on his other medical issues like the chronic pain in his legs or his social anxiety disorder, both of which cause him to fidget constantly.

“I can’t drink because I’m tired of making my pain worse,” Baglietto said.

Cooper House and Gateway Gardens are “like any other commercial apartment in town,” said Dave Fortin, a case manager at Gateway and Churches United for the Homeless, which are side-by-side.

Apartments come pre-furnished with all the essentials. There’s community space for group events, and the building has controlled access. Residents sign leases and, at Cooper, most of them pay at least a portion of the rent.

Tenants in both buildings are chronically homeless, which is defined by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People as people with a disabling condition who have been homeless for at least 12 straight months or four times in the past three years.

For the majority of the tenants, there is a reason they haven’t been able to find a permanent place.

About 93 percent of the chronically homeless in the Fargo-Moorhead area report having a serious mental illness, substance abuse or chronic physical health problem, said Dan Mahli, community development administrator for Fargo, citing the latest Wilder Research study.

About 95 percent of tenants in Gateway Gardens have some kind of mental health issue, and a majority of them were sheltering in Churches United for the Homeless, said Dara Lee, executive director of the Clay County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

“These are folks that just would not be able to find anything in the private market to rent,” Lee said. “Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to stay there successfully because they have proven it over and over again. Some of them have been homeless for 20, 30 years.”

Like Vena Edwards. The 50-year-old Oregon native left home 15 years ago for a life of homelessness after her father – “My best friend,” she says – died of a massive heart attack.

She settled into Cooper House in October, and although her apartment walls are freckled with photos of her family, she won’t be returning to Oregon any time soon.

“I can’t live there without Dad,” she said, bursting into tears.

‘Network of support’

Edwards doesn’t drink, but she suffers from a slew of other disorders that have exacerbated her homelessness: high blood pressure, diabetes, muscle spasms, anxiety disorder and chronic depression.

Because of her anxiety, she can’t leave her apartment without Ash, her yipping teacup Chihuahua with a pink collar.

While at Cooper, Edwards stabilized her medicine regimen, but there are no mandates for treatment to live in Cooper or Gateway.

Mahli said the program simply helps build a “network of support.”

It’s a philosophy officials say is working.

Within the first year that Cooper was open, the number of tenants seeking help at the Southeast Human Service Center shot up from 3 people to 27 people, said Kandia Qual, program director for the nonprofit Dacotah Foundation, which staffs Cooper House.

That data hasn’t been kept up since the first year, Qual said, but she believes the trend has continued.

In both buildings, there are more than 20 rules that tenants must agree to as part of their lease. The most distinct regulation is the allowance of alcohol.

Qual and Fortin both estimated that about 50 percent of tenants in each building have an alcohol abuse problem.

At Cooper House, there is a daily limit of alcohol that a tenant can bring inside – a case of beer, or 500 mL of hard liquor is the standard, although the actual limit depends on the percentage of alcohol in the drink, Qual said.

Mouthwashes that contain alcohol are completely banned because of how volatile they can be if drank like a beverage, Qual said.

Even items like hand sanitizer count toward the daily limit, but Qual noted she doesn’t have “a single resident that maxes out” on their liquor allowance.

The story is different at Gateway, where there is no daily alcohol limit, but each tenant can be assessed one-by-one and restrictions can be set individually, said Fortin, the case manager.

“It’s been routine where people have not been able to bring alcohol in anymore,” he said.

If tenants at Gateway are unruly consistently, they could also be asked to go to treatment or face eviction, Fortin said. Mandates like that don’t exist at Cooper.

“This is not to say that we don’t suggest or offer treatment many times during their time at Cooper, because we do” especially if a tenant’s behavior is putting their housing at risk, Qual said,

Focusing on housing, regardless of substance abuse issues, is about “harm reduction,” said Jane Alexander, executive director of Churches United.

“Even if they don’t stop drinking, their drinking is going to be less harmful to others and themselves if they’re housed,” she said.

But the buildings aren’t “wet houses,” officials say.

If these homes didn’t allow drinking, many of the tenants would never find a permanent home where they could start putting their lives back together, Alexander said.

During her more than 20 years working with homelessness in Boston, Alexander said housing programs there would turn the homeless away because of substance abuse issues.

“So they died on the streets,” Alexander said.

Now they’re at least dying with a roof over their heads, said Lynn Fundingsland, executive director of Fargo Public Housing Authority.

A total of seven tenants have died while at Cooper House – five who moved in the month it opened, he said. Of those five, one person died within four days of moving to Cooper, a sign of the abysmal health of the chronically homeless, Fundingsland said.

Only one tenant has died at Gateway Gardens, but that resident was more than 80 years old, Lee said.

Mahli said he can recall when a veteran, homeless for 50 years, came into a shelter in Fargo. Staff was able to secure an apartment for him in the High Rise, where he eventually died.

“He ended up dying with some dignity here in Fargo. That’s a good thing,” Mahli said. “Was he allowed to have a six-pack of beer in his refrigerator? I don’t know. And I don’t know if it matters.”

Crunching the numbers

Cooper House has saved taxpayer dollars, according to a study completed by Fargo business advisory firm Eide Bailly in 2011.

The study followed 66 individuals and tallied receipts for eight types of expenses in Fargo in the year before and after they moved into Cooper House.

In the 12 months before Cooper, they averaged a total of $552,895 for services like emergency room, clinic and detox visits, arrests and jail time.

After moving in, those costs dropped 37 percent to $348,755. Around $97,000 of that comes from the cost of contracting the Dacotah Foundation to staff Cooper.

Costs tied to emergency shelters virtually disappeared once they entered Cooper, dropping 98 percent from $139,200 to $3,200, the study showed.

Detox costs also dropped dramatically, falling 71 percent, from $75,360 to $21,840. Jail expenses fell 48 percent from $169,455 to $87,768.

Lee said there hasn’t been a similar study of Gateway residents, though she’d like to conduct one.

Hospital costs increased once those 66 residents entered Cooper House. Fundingsland said this is likely because the part-time nurse on staff assists tenants in getting proper hospital care.

“So we can decide to do something or do nothing, and frankly, the choice to do nothing is more expensive,” Mahli said.

Cooper House also “made a dent” on the number of chronically homeless here, Fundingsland said.

In 2010, there were 49 chronically homeless people in the six-county southeastern corner of North Dakota including Cass County, according to the state Coalition for Homeless People.

In 2011, with Cooper open for a year, that number dipped to 36. It went back up again in 2012 to 44, but that’s likely due to the “large influx” of homeless people across the state, said Scott Stenerson, a retired Fargo police officer who now works as the department’s liaison for the city’s homeless.

Cooper House and Gateway Gardens are important pieces in Fargo’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, Stenerson said, although he admitted that plan, adopted by city leaders in 2006, is wishful thinking right now.

“I wish I could say that I think Fargo will end homelessness 10 years from the start of the 10 Year Plan,” Stenerson wrote in an email. “That is not going to happen, unfortunately.”

Building costs to run Cooper House are around $150,000 a year, not including costs to contract the 24/7 front door staff.

Gateway Gardens, which cost about $4 million to construct and was built with state funds, now costs around $350,000 annually to run; $150,000 of that is for a contract with Creative Care for Reaching Independence, which provides 24/7 front door staff and case management.

At Cooper, tenants pay at least $50 toward rent, unless they’re in the process of applying for disability. At Gateway, state funding pays for 19 units, while tenants in the other five units use Section 8 Housing Vouchers.

Few complaints lodged

Sitting with Ash, the teacup Chihuahua, in her lap, Edwards said she doesn’t plan to ever leave Cooper.

“It’s given me a new start,” she said. “I wish there were more Cooper Houses.”

Cooper and Gateway are full and have waiting lists.

Stenerson said North Dakota’s 10-year plan calls for the addition of 500 more units like Cooper House across the state by 2018, but Fundingsland said there are no immediate plans to build a new complex here.

Building the first Cooper House, named for the former Cooper Tire warehouse that used to be on that lot, was not without difficulty.

Residents had a “not in my backyard” attitude, and the community had to go through an “education moment,” Mahli said.

Since opening though, Fundingsland said they’ve only received one complaint, and it was about visitors not a tenant. In Moorhead, no complaints have ever been lodged about Gateway, Lee said.

At Gateway, Lee estimates there is an available apartment about every two months. At Cooper, 15 spot have opened up in the past 12 months, Fundingsland said, a bit higher than the turnover rate at Fargo High Rise.

For some, the rules are too strict, and they want to leave if they can, Lee said. For others, the rules are too lax, and they require even more care than provided at Cooper and Gateway.

For those who fit right in, like Edwards and Baglietto, there is no timeline. But ultimately the goal is to gain solid rental history, become self-sufficient and move out, Mahli said.

“But frankly, we gotta be realistic too. There’s serious mental illness,” he said. “You’re not just going to wake up one morning and be cured.”

That doesn’t mean Cooper’s mission is in vain, he said. “Disability and poverty (and) substance abuse shouldn’t be a lifelong sentence to homelessness,” Mahli said.

Baglietto has been at Cooper House since the beginning, and he doesn’t know how he will ever be able to leave.

His anxiety makes it impossible for him to keep a solid schedule. His severe night terrors, a traumatic response to his abuse as a child, will keep him from marrying, he believes.

“I can’t be in public,” Baglietto says, but he’s quick to correct himself. “I mean, I’m learning.”

Baglietto has highs and lows. He recently had to put down his service dog, and he lost a close friend to suicide in late June, but he said he no longer thinks about suicide or boozing.

The former train tramp’s room at Cooper helps calm his anxiety. The walls are covered with trinkets and memories from his life on the road, and his window faces the train tracks.

“I’m so tempted to just jump a freight train,” he said. “But it won’t work. It won’t give me what I need.”

House rules

To live in either Cooper House in Fargo or Gateway Gardens in Moorhead, tenants must have a documented history of chronic homelessness.

To live in either establishment, they must sign an addendum to their lease that includes more than 20 house rules, which include:

• At Cooper House, the daily alcohol limit is about a case of beer or 500 mL of hard liquor.

• There is no alcohol limit at Gateway Gardens, but each tenant is assessed individually and personal limits could be set.

• No alcoholic beverages are allowed in the common areas.

• Illegal activity of any kind, including use of drugs in the building, results in immediate discharge.

• Non-resident visiting hours in Cooper House are from noon to 8 p.m. In Gateway Gardens, they are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

• Tenants may only have up to two guests in their apartment, with larger groups approved by staff. Larger group visits may be limited to public areas.

• Residents agree to meet with staff as needed to discuss goals or independent living plans.

• Mental health or substance abuse treatment is not mandated in order to become a tenant in either building, but at Gateway Gardens treatment can be mandated if a tenant is consistently unruly.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518