From the Streets to Sobriety and Back Again

After detoxing in Allumbaugh House, many people without a home have no choice but to go back to the same bad situation as before


Brian Finbraaten's rock bottom happened under a carport off of Fairview Avenue and Milwaukee Street. His brother had just died in Rapid City, S.D.,and Finbraaten never got to say goodbye. His marriage fell apart after his wife was charged with domestic battery. He left his home in Coeur d'Alene in search of employment and another shot at staying sober. Instead, he ended up under the carport.

In 2010, a few years before that night, Finbraaten took a bus to Boise with only a few bags in hand. He found his way to the Boise Rescue Mission, then bounced from shelter to shelter, from campsite to campsite. Nothing in his life stayed stable for more than a month or two.

He struggled to find his way out of the bottle. He admitted to using his food stamp card to buy cooking sherry and V8 to get himself drunk. He failed again and again to maintain sobriety.

That night under the carport, he'd had enough.

"I just said, 'That's it. I'm done.' I started walking out to the street. I was going to walk right in front of a car," Finbraaten said. "That's when some of my buddies tackled me to the ground and called 911. The hospital said my suicidal thoughts were alcohol-related. They said, 'You've really got an alcohol problem, Brian.'"

That wasn't the first—nor the last—time Finbraaten checked himself into the Allumbaugh House, which is a facility that offers medically-managed detoxification and mental health crisis services to the Treasure Valley.

It's operated by Terry Reilly Health Services and receives funding from the cities of Boise and Meridian as well as Ada County, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, St. Luke's Health Systems and the United Way of Treasure Valley.

Over the six years since Finbraaten moved to Boise, he admitted himself into the Allumbaugh House 18 times.

"I was absolutely embarrassed to walk in again and again," Finbraaten said. "But the people at Allumbaugh house are selfless and nonjudgmental. They even found me a few times on the street and they were like, 'Brian, man, you know you can come back.' I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for Allumbaugh. I would be on the street, or I would be dead."

When Finbraaten says "here," he's referring to a nice, new apartment building where he qualifies for Section 8 housing. Despite the warm spring air, the 53-year-old still wears several layers of clothing, including a blue hoodie that brings out the blue in his eyes. His thumb and index finger are stained with nicotine from years smoking cigarettes.

He talks openly about his struggles with alcohol and proudly shows his one-year coin from Alcoholics Anonymous. He said he owes much of it to the Allumbaugh House.

Finbraaten's tenderness toward the Allumbaugh House is mirrored in Cindy Miller, when she speaks of the patients that have come through the door. The Allumbaugh House was built in 2010 and Miller has managed it since then.

"More than half of the employees that began with us are still here, which is rare in this kind of health care. It speaks to how important this is for all of us," Miller said. "It's because of the patients—their gratitude, their generosity, their kindness and appreciation—that makes this so meaningful."

Her demeanor is warm as she gives a tour of the facility.

The common area has several couches and a flat screen TV, high ceilings and large windows, as well as vibrant paintings on the walls. Through the hall is the nurse's station—manned 24/7—and the dormitories: eight beds for women and eight beds for men. There's the "zen" patio, complete with a large, shady tree and a fountain. A pot of coffee brews in the kitchen and Life's Kitchen delivers lunch and dinner daily.

Despite a total of 24 beds, the Allumbaugh House can only take on 16 patients at a time with the funding it currently receives. It often has a sizable waitlist.

"We do not bill for any services," Miller said. "Our priority population is for the underserved."

More than half of Allumbaugh's patients are without a home. Each patient voluntarily enters the program and is usually discharged within five to seven days, but they often don't have anywhere to go except back to the street.

That's something Miller would like to see change. She said she reaches out to family members of the patients, as well as sober living homes and transitional housing, but there is a lack of bed capacity across the area.

"Our highest concern is in the people who are returning to the streets," she said. "Their risks of relapse are extremely high."

Finbraaten can attest to that. Many of his relapses happened because he had nowhere else to go after he sobered up at the Allumbaugh House.

"[The homeless community] is really tight-knit if you're in with them," Finbraaten said. "You share everything—your beer, your smokes. You need a piece of clothing, you get it. But you have to break free from them to stay sober."

Even once Finbraaten moved into a sober living house, his old friends were in the park right across the street.

"They were continuously saying, 'Just come on and have a beer with us,'" he said. "I tried to isolate myself from the homeless community, but you know, people get lonely."

The city of Boise's newly announced 'Housing First' plan won't address the problem of having nowhere to go for at least a year, if not two. The plan calls for community developers to submit proposals for a 25-unit complex that would house chronically homeless. The city promises to contribute $1 million toward construction of such a project, and proposals are due in September.

The city is also working with the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority, CATCH, Inc. and Terry Reilly to identify 15 units scattered around the valley to provide permanent housing.

"Our 'Housing First' cake is not fully baked," said Mike Journee, spokesman for the city of Boise. "The goal is to get someone into a stable housing situation, then provide wrap-around services."

Such services include mental health and substance abuse treatment as well as financial counseling.

Journee said Point-in-Time counts in years past have revealed there are about 100 people without a home considered chronically homeless, living in Boise. He said those 100 people cost the community up to $6 million per year between medical care, incarceration and service at the shelters.

"If we could get all those 100 folks into housing, it would cost the community $1.6 million annually," he said.

But for now, it's up to the community to come forward with proposals for the plan. Journee said he has no idea how many proposals will actually come in this September.

"We'll contribute money to the construction, but we expect the community to put together the programming and the ongoing funding for this so it's a long-term, permanent resource," Journee said.

Until then, it's a difficult cycle of addiction to break, according to Miller.

"It's been very hard for us to do real outcome measurement because this is a very transient population," she said. "We take people back as many times as we need to and view it as another opportunity to help them. I don't know if it's going to be the fourth time here or the 10th time here that everything will come together."

Finbraaten said he doesn't know what changed on his 18th and final visit to the facility.

"They've given me their share of tough love," he said. "They said, 'OK Brian, what's really going to be different this time?' It was after the 18th time that I came up with the answer. You know, I don't honestly know. I just want to try to live. I just want to live."

Finbraaten left that facility for the last time on Feb. 18, 2015 and hopped from his counselor's home to sober living to camping in isolated areas to staying in motels.

He said things started turning around the longer he was sober.

"The things that have happened—the only way to explain it would be divine," he said. "As I stayed sober, doors opened. I was chosen on the lottery—one of the 1,200 chosen out of 12,000 people in the state of Idaho—for Section 8 housing.

"There's no way, if I had been drinking, that I would have gotten into this place," Finbraaten added. "The legwork that had to be done, the doors that are slammed—you just have to persevere and continue on."

The first time Finbraaten stepped into his new apartment, he was overcome with emotion.

"I was in shock," he said. "I went in there and I just started screaming and dancing the jig."

Finbraaten said he's starting to deal with some of the long-term effects of living in survival mode for so many years, but he's looking for jobs in construction and plans to quit smoking on his 54th birthday, later this month. He even wants to start working out.

"I made it," he said. "It's amazing that I got here."