Toast of the Town

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

It is early on a Sunday morning, and the man in the Denver C.A.R.E.S. dorm for amateurs is sobbing in a corner. He just woke up to the news that he was driving drunk last night and struck a pedestrian, whose leg is broken.

"That must suck," says first-timer Justin Thaber. "I'm glad I'm not him."

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.

Thaber, 23, is a second-year senior at Colorado State University, down from Fort Collins for the weekend for a fraternity brother's wedding. The bachelor party was last night. "We started drinking at the Avalanche game, then we went to the Hard Rock and then a bunch of other bars. We were on our way back to the hotel for the strippers when it happened."

One of Thaber's buddies tackled him on the 16th Street Mall. They wrestled. The police were called. They interviewed Thaber, then called the C.A.R.E.S. van. Thaber's blood alcohol level was .167.

"I've had many more many times," he says. "I zonked right out when I got here. No spins, no problem." Thaber's green silk shirt is barely wrinkled. "I feel pretty good."

Except for the bill he was just handed. Denver Health is charging him $275 for his ten-hour stay.

"Dude," he protests. "I didn't even get a pillow."

Denver C.A.R.E.S. clients are charged $275 for every night spent in detox. Few of them pay. The center billed more than $4 million dollars last year and has collected just $90,420, nearly all of it from amateurs, the frequent fliers not generally being concerned with credit ratings.

Every bill includes a charge for counseling, as every client has to meet with a counselor before he's released. "With the first-timers, it's basically just a conversation where we say something like, 'Look, you're one of 23 guys in a city of a million-plus who were brought here last night for some reason,'" explains Collins. "We try to get them to question if they have a problem with drinking or if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And a lot of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know that. We just think it's a healthy question for them to ask themselves."

Frequent fliers are asked in every counseling session if they wish to be referred to a treatment center. Only 8 percent agree, and most of them relapse. "I know of very few success stories in twenty years," says Givens. "It's a lot easier for me to count up all the guys who drank themselves to death than it is all the guys who got sober."

One year ago, less than 1 percent of Denver C.A.R.E.S clients sought treatment. The eight-fold rise in treatment referrals followed two significant funding increases. In addition to the money for the extra van service, the City of Denver allocated $154,000 last July to hire two clinical social workers and one addiction counselor assigned to "properly identify and refer Denver C.A.R.E.S. patients who are appropriate candidates for more extensive treatment." The City also gave $282,000 to Central Shelter, a residential treatment facility for homeless alcoholics, to set aside thirty additional beds for Denver C.A.R.E.S. regulars.

"They are caught in a self-destructive and expensive cycle," Mayor Webb proclaimed in a prepared statement. "Time and time again, they are back on the streets, drinking excessively. So the challenge is clear: We need to provide a place where this population can receive the treatment they need after being discharged from Denver C.A.R.E.S.

"Ultimately, we will be measured as a community by how we treat 'the least among us,' and we are, in a very real and productive way, reaffirming our commitment to those who have not yet shared in our city's prosperity."

Caesar wants to share in Denver's prosperity by getting out of his five-day hold early so he can make the last day the of the Capitol Hill People's Fair and maybe make a few bucks under the table taking down tents. "If you want out early, going to the AA meetings they have here is a good start," he says. Caesar mimics the nightly announcement: "The AA meeting is beginning. The AA meeting is beginning. All sober clients are invited to attend."

Also, if you have the DTs, hide from your counselor. "If they see you have the shakes or you're pacing, they'll know you're going through withdrawals, and they'll keep you on a hold. They sneak into the lunchroom to see who's eating, too, so you can't refuse to eat, even if you're really sick...Try not to let them take your vitals, because your vitals can give you away. The thing to do is, if you're in bad shape and you really want to get out, you have to save up all your strength and just fool the counselor for a few minutes.

"When you're going told turkey, this place isn't Denver C.A.R.E.S., man, it's Denver scares."

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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.