Each year the San Francisco alcohol rehabilitation system treats over 3,000 homeless alcoholics. After completing four to 12 weeks of treatment these individuals had no clean and sober living environment to return to; instead they would be discharged to skid row hotels where drinking and drug abuse was rampant. Historically, the city’s detoxification, drop-in, and transportation services, as well as other treatment efforts were often frustrated by the lack of long-term housing for this chronic alcoholic population.
In the late 1970s, City of San Francisco staff discovered a programmatic intervention that seemed to work: a single-room occupancy hotel converted into a residence that required tenants to stay clean and sober, utilizing peer support with only minimal supervision. The concept of the sober hotel addresses the housing needs of homeless indigent alcoholics in an urban setting and is characterized by a low rent structure, absence of drugs, quality housing, and a physical setting which promotes peer interaction and support. The resultant Arlington Hotel now meets the housing needs of approximately 7,000 homeless, indigent, and alcoholic individuals in the San Francisco area each year.
The mayor of San Francisco challenged the Health Department to create these sober living environments by exploring with her economic development staff all avenues of creative financing. Architectural design requirements were prepared, tax lawyers were consulted, feasibility analysis were performed, investment bankers were contacted, real estate developers were recruited to volunteer their time, and investment corporations were selected for participation. Today, the Arlington Hotel stands as a dual example of health programming and creative public-private financing.
The Arlington Hotel is less a set of activities than it is a compilation of prerequisites, grounded in the assumption that the environmental sum is greater than the specific activities or parts. The environment is first characterized by a low rent structure; current rents are between $200 and $300 for a furnished room, depending on its size and whether it has a bath. Second, the hotel environment is expected to be without alcohol or drugs. Covenants of tenancy prohibit the use of such substances by residents. Third, the environment is well kept with quality amenities such as linen and desk service. Last, the environment is designed to promote peer interaction and support through architecturally designed community living and eating spaces. The six community kitchens are three converted rooms with the walls knocked out to provide well-lighted open space on each floor. The kitchen has several stoves, mini refrigerators, sinks, and food storage bins with ample preparation space. Residents are expected to clean up after themselves. There are dining room tables that also are used for card playing and other board games. New couches and a television in each lounge area encourages social interaction and a sense of community.
The unique blending of local, state, private nonprofit, and private investor involvement generated to purchase the property for occupancy for homeless alcoholics is cited by the Arlington Hotel as its greatest achievement. As evidenced by the improvement on the part of tenants, the simple fact of safe, supportive sober living also has proven effective for the formerly hopeless. The surrounding neighborhood has also been improved by the rehabilitated skid row hotel. In addition, the city’s health care system has achieved cost savings by moving former high user health care recipients to low cost health and housing environments.