Toast of the Town

Denver C.A.R.E.S. picks drunks off the streets, then puts them right back out there.

Sunday morning, coming down, Charles Caesar raises the dusty left cuff of his blue jeans to show off the burn scar on his leg. "Passed out on a steam grate," he explains. Caesar is 43, homeless, and addicted to alcohol. "People look at me and think 'drunk Indian.' Really, I'm just a guy in a lot of pain."

Caesar put a hurting on himself last night. He remembers boarding a bus bound for downtown Denver yesterday afternoon, then nothing until he came to this morning in a shopworn hospital bed. He was in a crowded dormitory inside the Denver Health detox center Denver C.A.R.E.S. For breakfast he was served a plate of eggs and a pink paper titled "Application for Emergency Commitment." It said he had been admitted to Denver C.A.R.E.S. for the 592nd time.

"When you've got nowhere else to go, you can always come here," Caesar says. "You just have to be drunk."

Anthony Camera
Van driver Alison Givens sees the same clients over and over.
Anthony Camera
Van driver Alison Givens sees the same clients over and over.

Caesar was stumbling down Wazee Street last night around 8 p.m. when the police stopped him, then called a Denver C.A.R.E.S. van to come pick him up. His blood alcohol level when he arrived at the detox center was an impressive .357 (most people are clearly drunk at .15; most lose consciousness at .3; most die at .5). "Client has strong odor of alcohol, has staggering gait and slurred speech," reads Caesar's intake report. "He is making inappropriate comments to staff." Specifically, Caesar was howling, "I am Spartacus!" and "Attica! Attica!"

"Sometimes I get a little mad when they come to get me because I don't want to go to detox that night," he says.

Denver C.A.R.E.S. isn't a hospital, nor is it a shelter or a jail. It is a hybrid of all three. It's where the police send intoxicated citizens when they don't want to put them in jail. It's also a place to put homeless alcoholics who might otherwise disturb commerce in LoDo or bed down near the steps of City Hall, where last year Mayor Webb specifically forbade them from sleeping. Denver Health Medical Center classifies the $5 million-a-year, publicly funded center as "a non-medical detoxification facility for public inebriates." It is the biggest and busiest of its kind in the country.

Every night, dozens of drunks are picked up off the streets, packed into cages in the back of city vans and hauled to Denver C.A.R.E.S. like wayward mongrels being taken to the pound. This is done in the name of their best interests and of providing a public service. Last summer, Mayor Webb's Downtown Safety Task Force -- a joint effort with the Downtown Denver Partnership -- recommended the city increase its funding of Denver C.A.R.E.S. by $240,000 a year to increase van pick-up service to 24 hours a day.

"I think it shows a good degree of enlightenment for the city to provide such a facility," says Dr. Stephen Cantrill, associate director of emergency medicine at Denver Health. "The presence of Denver C.A.R.E.S. depressurizes the emergency department. [Public inebriates] would be here if they weren't there, and this isn't the appropriate place for them."

Prior to the 1970s, public inebriation was viewed in Denver and throughout the country as a crime. In most cities, the police were responsible for managing homeless alcoholics by throwing them in jail. Many street drunks accumulated hundreds of misdemeanor convictions as they became mired in a cycle of arrest, short-term incarceration, release and re-arrest. Gradually, as alcoholism came to be viewed as a disease, this approach came to be viewed as inhumane, as well as an unwarranted burden on the court system. States began to decriminalize public inebriation.

Colorado did so in 1973, with the state legislature declaring, "Public intoxication is a health problem which should be handled by public health rather than criminal procedures."

Denver C.A.R.E.S. opened shop one year later. "The community in general realized we had to do something with public inebriates since we were no longer putting them in jail," says Dr. Edmund Casper, director of behavioral health services for Denver Health.

Casper helped establish Denver C.A.R.E.S. along with prominent local businessmen George Rock and Rex Morgan, who lobbied for state and city start-up funds to create the nonprofit service operating within the Denver Health system. A portrait of Rock and Morgan now hangs in the lobby of the Denver C.A.R.E.S. building at 11th Avenue and Cherokee Street, its third location. The detox center has been there nine years, long enough for the crack houses across the street to be replaced with stacks of $450,000 lofts. (Detox clients are now instructed to remove the white bands bearing their names and birth dates from around their wrists before they are released in the morning, and are dispersed in small groups rather than en masse, so as not to upset the loft owners.)

Most of them will be back soon. Denver C.A.R.E.S. has a revolving-door admissions policy; 85 percent of the detox center's clients are regulars like Caesar. "Frequent fliers," the staff calls them. Many have been to Denver C.A.R.E.S. hundreds of times since the center started keeping track of individual visits in 1993. (Last year, Denver C.A.R.E.S. logged 31,000 "days of stay.") Some have more than 1,000 admissions.

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I was once taken to denver cares detox and it was the worst experience of my life. First I was crying cause I didn't want to be in there so they said they were going to put me in a quiet room for a little while. ok sounds good. I could use some peace and quiet. Turns out the quiet room was just a locked concrete cell with nothing to sit on and not even a toilet. just a drain to piss into. I was in there for six hours and had to pee in the drain and hold in my crap. I was supposed to do hemodialysis that night and I told them that when I came in but they didn't care. I wasn't given my insulin and didn't receive dialysis the 2 days that I was held there against my will. I also am a vegetarian and told staff this several times. They said hmm. and all of the food they served had meat mixed into it and I couldn't eat it. All I had was green beans.