Leon’s Story: Longing NOT to be Addicted

July 8, 2014

A familiar voice rings out, “Don’t worry about a thing” – the Bob Marley melody carries from the soup kitchen dining room through the upstairs hallway – “Everything little thing is gonna be alright.” It means only one thing – Leon is here.

For a decade, Leon would announce his presence (and intoxication) at Urban Ministry Center through singing – loud, can’t-hear-yourself-think, singing. He stuck to a few favorites – Bob Marley, Kenny Rogers, and gospel. In and out of homelessness, Leon came to UMC for his basic needs: lunch, shower, mail, and an occasional load of laundry. Not only was he well known to homeless service providers, he was one of our county’s top users of the emergency room. His alcohol addiction and its physical impact led him there on a regular basis.

I am reminded of Father Greg Boyle’s description of a man in a similar situation, “Alcohol didn’t seem to obscure his goodness – it pickled it.” Leon, no matter his state of intoxication, had kindness pouring through every pore. This kindness made him a beloved figure by service providers, medical staff, his peers, and even the police, who arrested him more than twenty times in the last four years.

We are among those grieving the news that Leon’s voice will no longer fill our lobbies. Late last month, he was found dead in the woods. Evidently, he was intoxicated and fell, fatally hitting his head.

Caring for him through the years, I had an opportunity to understand addiction as a medical disease. Leon longed not to be addicted. He sought treatment for his disease, returning to detox time and time again. His periods of sobriety lasted at times months, even years, and at times days, even hours.

LeonMoore Place, UMC’s housing first apartment complex, was created for people who persist in homelessness, for a variety of reasons. In Leon’s case, it is clear his disease of addiction kept him in and out homelessness. By meeting people where they are and not requiring sobriety, the housing first approach is an important tool in the treatment of the disease of addiction. But, sometimes, even Moore Place is not enough.

Among the first tenants at Moore Place, Leon was in the small percentage of people who could not remain safely in the community. He moved out after only two months. Housing providers around the country find that “chronic inebriates” are among the most difficult to house. Leon’s final fate is not uncommon. Just as we continue to fight for more effective treatment against cancer and HIV, we must continue to fight for more effective interventions against alcoholism.

Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in Seattle is doing just that. A front-runner in developing the housing first approach, in 2005, DESC opened 1811 Eastlake, a 75 unit apartment complex for homeless individuals with chronic alcohol addiction. Still utilizing the housing first approach, 1811 Eastlake goes a step further – from the architecture to the staffing structure, it is designed to meet the unique needs of chronic alcoholics. Recognizing their innovation, DESC is studying and documenting their model and its impact. What have they found? Not only has 1811 drastically reduced the cost burden of alcoholism on taxpayers ($4 million cost-savings in year one!), the approach has also been found to significantly reduce substance abuse among its tenants.

While Leon tried every intervention available in Charlotte, there was another intervention to which he did not have access. Perhaps it is time Charlotte consider replicating 1811 Eastlake’s success, to avoid replicating Leon’s death.