Paul Bacon had long since advanced from detox to stints in jail. It was 2002 and he was incarcerated again, looking at 90 days. One morning, a public defender arrived at his cell to offer him the chance to get out. Bacon turned her down. “This time I was going to plead not guilty,” he says. But he began to consider the opportunities. “When the lady walked back past my cell after visiting other prisoners, I called out to her and changed my mind. The deal was that I’d go into the Serial Inebriate Program, and I didn’t even know what that was.”
In 2000, the police department adopted Serial Inebriate as a pilot program, an effort to help chronic alcoholics get sober and stay off the street. Instead of arresting the same “drunk-in-publics” over and over, the courts would offer them a free six-month recovery program, including housing and food. The idea was to end their cycle of incarceration, medical emergency, and back to booze and homelessness again.
The program is now in its ninth year. Paul Bacon was one of its early test cases. Today, he admits that the public defender’s deal seemed the shortest path to his next drink.
“All through the 1980s,” Bacon tells me, “I drank mainly on weekends, or after work. I got a job I really liked around 1990; it was maintenance supervisor for University Towne Centre. After a while, one of the other guys, who’d been there longer than me, blew the whistle to the manager and said that he smelled alcohol on my breath. They fired me. So I made a decision. I said, ‘Why should I work my butt off for the rest of my life just to pay for a roof over my head? Forget it.’ This was when recycling was getting big. So that’s what I was going to do, recycle and camp out. I actually believed that I would do that for the rest of my life. It justified my drinking career. ‘If I keep working,’ I figured, ‘I’ll just give it to the man and have nothing for myself.’ I made that decision, a very bad decision. And I lived it for the next 12 years.
“Soon the police were tired of seeing me on the streets. One night, a cop woke me up at the dead end of a street. ‘Mr. Bacon, you’re drunk again.’ Of course I was drunk because I was always drunk back then. This particular cop was always after me and would load me into his patrol car and take me downtown. There was one time I started to do pretty well at detox and even got a job there. But I showed up to work drunk one morning.”
Over many nights sleeping out in the cold, Bacon progressively injured his spine. “Up in Clairemont, where I hung out, I always had a spare sleeping bag hidden,” he says. “But I’d sometimes just fling myself into bushes drunk. If it rained, I went under a church awning. One night, on the hard cement, I told my friend that I couldn’t move. He called 911, and they took me to the emergency room. I figured they were treating me for alcohol poisoning. They did give me Gatorade to rehydrate, plus a sandwich and a sponge bath. But they also gave me some crutches.”
The pilot Serial Inebriate Program called for police to take public drunks to jail after they’d been transported to detox five times in 30 days. If candidates then accepted formal court offers to join the program, officers escorted them to treatment providers who agreed to accept them.
Pathfinders on Streamview Avenue in East San Diego was the recovery home where Bacon began treatment. There he lived in an apartment, attended daily Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, and met with program counselors. Within weeks of his arrival, Pathfinders decided to stop taking Serial Inebriate clients, opting instead to work with persons having dual diagnoses, substance abuse plus mental illness. But Bacon was allowed to stay. “I did learn a lot that was useful in those dual-diagnosis meetings,” he says.
A Serial Inebriate counselor eventually arranged for him to have surgery on his back. But he still has great difficulty walking and spends most of his days in a wheelchair.
It was last summer that I first interviewed Bacon and three other graduates of the Serial Inebriate Program. Off and on, I’ve discussed their situations with Robert, my most curmudgeonly acquaintance. I haven’t told him whether Bacon stayed sober. “Doesn’t matter whether he did or didn’t, the man is clear that he wanted to drink as his life’s career. He should have to take the consequences without public money rescuing him,” argues Robert, who thinks he sounds too hard-ass to have his full name known.
But could it be even costlier to let chronic alcoholics go untreated? In 2006, a group of researchers under the leadership of James Dunford, the city’s medical director, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine an evaluation of the Serial Inebriate Program’s first three years. The study looked at health-care records of 529 chronic alcoholics, so determined through detox denying them service. Prior to courts collaborating with the program, the alcoholics put the following strains on local resources: 308 “were transported by emergency medical services 2335 times; 409…amassed 3318 hospital emergency-department visits; and 217…required 652 [hospital] admissions, resulting in 3361 inpatient days. Health-care charges totaled $17.7 million.” Of this total, $1.3 million was spent by ambulance service, $2.5 million by emergency departments, and $13.9 million for inpatient care.
“I should have been dead four or five times,” says Lou Fanucchi, by all accounts the most accomplished accordionist in San Diego. He has played occasionally for the San Diego Symphony, whenever it needs an accordion. He’s worked with Luciano Pavarotti and Bette Midler. Recently, he traveled to Chicago to perform in several venues.
“After my divorce in 2000,” says Fanucchi, “I was staying for a while at my mother’s, and one day she watched me come crashing down from the second floor. The stairs have one of those old Mission Hills wood banisters with sharp corners. I gashed my head and dropped to the carpet right there in front of her. Blood started gushing from my head and soaking the carpet. My mom panicked and called the next-door neighbor instead of 911. The irony to this is that a guy I knew who was a meth addict happened to come to the door right then because he wanted to borrow money from me. He looks in the door and sees me sprawled out and blood all over, and he says, ‘Did you guys call 911?’ Eventually, he did it. I learned later that, when the ambulance came, they weren’t even sure I would live, that’s how much blood I lost. I woke up in the hospital with these weird thumps to my head and the surgeon saying, ‘It’s okay, we’re putting a few staples in your head.’