For some, the white halls and orange scrubs at the detox center at 1800 Chicago Ave. can start to feel like home.
For the dozens of University of Minnesota students brought there each year, however, detox – or 1800 Chicago, as it’s known – can be a nightmare.
American Indian Community Development Corporation’s detox center is a likely destination if University police spot a drunken student wandering around alone or passed out.
And while many students don’t remember the trip that landed them there, a weekend spent in the third-floor facility is hard to forget.
“It was degrading,” sophomore Gus Perron said. “I felt like a prisoner. I didn’t think anything was wrong with drinking before that, but when I went in there, I felt like I was a piece of scum.”
Last November, Perron spent his birthday drinking at an on-campus party. He passed out in a stairwell while waiting for a friend in Territorial Hall. He sobered up in very different company.
Only 23 percent of admissions to the facility in 2009 were first-timers like Perron.
Many clients, rather, tend to roll in on a regular basis. One man racked up 112 visits in a single year.
The average stay is two and a half days.
“If you do the math,” detox director Sharlee Benson said of the record-setting client, “he wasn’t much of any place else.”
But for students, 60 hours in detox can be mentally exhausting.
Each year, the facility handles about 7,000 clients who are brought in by the police, the hospital, are court committed orcommit themselves.
Once committed, patients are checked in, have their vitals taken and spend the first night sleeping.
Day two is used for recuperation and is also when a client will see a counselor and is released the following day.
A trip in total runs about $170 a day, a fee that insurance companies will rarely cover.
Detox begins with a three-level ride up a remotely controlled elevator specially designed to prevent clients from making a run for it. And it does a good job, for the most part. The facility has had only a few escapes over the years. Perron admitted he tried to get away.
“I tried telling them I was going to leave,” Perron said. “I was like, ‘Just turn your back and I’ll take off’ … I even tried bribing somebody that was working at the front desk.”
Once a police officer makes the call, however, a student’s fate is already decided. About half of the time University police call, there is at least one of the unit’s 50 beds open. If 1800 Chicago is booked, students are sent to the hospital instead.
For University police, game days are the busiest for trips to detox. Nearly every home football game of the year results in at least one call to 1800 Chicago, including the Sept. 25 game against Northern Illinois.
Just after 7 p.m., before the game even kicked off, the elevator doors of 1800 Chicago opened and a police officer guided an 18-year-old fan sporting a maroon Minnesota sweatshirt to a seat next to a detox technician.
Stadium security had found Blaine Schmidt, a high school senior from South Dakota, with his jeans and shoes covered in vomit in the student section of TCF Bank Stadium.
“Didn’t get to watch the game?” 6-foot-6-inch technician John Williams asked.
Slumping, Schmidt shook his head no.
“You started too early,” Williams joked with a smile, as he looked into the TV lounge where an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting had just ended. “The game’s just starting.”
The techs handle the clients first, getting their information, checking vital signs, recording their belongings and sometimes awkwardly helping them into the orange outfits, as needed.
Slowly, as Schmidt sobered, he started to warm up to Williams, or “Big John,” as some co-workers call him.
He told Williams about his dreams of playing college football after he graduates from high school.
Schmidt sat on the towel-covered chair next to the tech’s desk with his eyes darting all around the room.
“Sightseeing” is what Williams called this. Schmidt was getting used to his surroundings.
But before Schmidt got too comfortable, there was one more thing to take care of.
“Whoa, I don’t like that color,” he said as he moved back in his chair.
“If you go to Syracuse [University], you’ll have to wear orange,” Williams said.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” Schmidt said.
“Yeah, you’ll wear that orange,” Williams joked as he handed Schmidt the scrubs and pulled the plastic blue curtain shut.
When the curtains opened, Schmidt popped out in his new uniform and Williams showed the first-timer to his bed.
But first, the two stopped off at the TV lounge to check the score of the game.
Minnesota trailed 7-3.
Most University students are the same, staff at 1800 Chicago said. They tend to spend their first hour or so explaining why they think they aren’t like the older men and women at the facility.
Although Schmidt is in high school, Williams said he is a “prime example” of what it is like to deal with University students.
“These kids from the suburbs come in and see the company they’re keeping,” Williams said. “They are shell shocked.”
Students, however, are a small part of the job here.
‘I don’t smile’
Technicians like Williams and John Battle handle the drunken patients when they first arrive and give the facility its personality.
Battle, for example, can sometimes be heard down the hallway, his booming voice reciting a hymn.
One warm Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, Battle was cleaning up the cafeteria after a slimy lunch of chop suey.
He was wearing his usual White Sox hat, along with U.S. Marine Corps dog tags.
Battle, 53, is an intense man who started working at the detox facility and a men’s shelter after struggling with his own drug addiction and watching his sister lose her life at the age of 42 because of an addiction.
“I let them know it’s not too late to change,” Battle said. “I was a drug addict, shootin’ dope, tootin’ dope, I did everything under the sun in my life. And I changed. Look at me now.”
After working at 1800 Chicago for more than six years, Battle has developed a distinct style of handling clients.
“If you treat them like dirt, they’re not going to treat you like an adult,” he said. “I want them to say ‘That’s John, and I’m not going to give him a hard time.'”
As a last resort, Battle and the other technicians have other ways of handling clients. He demonstrated wrestling holds used on patients who are unruly.
Battle will wrench clients’ arms behind their backs and steer them where he pleases. If another tech is around, each will grab an arm and wrap their legs around the patients’ legs and march them away.
This technique was on display Oct. 1, when one middle-aged man tried to wrestle away from techs who were trying to move him to a wheelchair. A quick nod from one tech to another prompts the move, and they wrap him up and take him away.
When patients do act up or instigate fights, they are placed in a “quiet room,” which is a seven-by-seven square with a pad for sleeping in the corner.
They are left there until they calm down or fall asleep.
For University students, Battle takes a different approach.
“I don’t smile,” he said. “When they come in I don’t play with them, I’m serious. I say, ‘Don’t you ever come back up in a place like this no more. You understand? This ain’t a place for you.'”
Battle uses this technique with students because he knows their answer.
“When I went to detox it was a life-changing experience,” Perron said. “This one guy knew everybody around me by name, and that’s when I knew I was sitting around a bunch of homeless people.”
Battle uses his time to make sure the students who roll in don’t become “regulars.”
Each year, about six regulars die on the streets, Benson said. Employees from 1800 Chicago join an annual march put on by the Church of St. Stephen in Minneapolis that pays tribute to all the homeless men and women who died that year.
A constant flow of clients is what keeps the 50 beds at 1800 Chicago filled almost every day of the week.
“I always say, ‘If you’re living under a bridge and drinking Listerine, what difference does the day make?'” Benson said.
Nurses keep an eye on clients through a bank of four computer monitors in a main corridor. Everything is recorded here, both to watch the patients and protect the AICDC from lawsuits.
Each year, about 10 injuries occur at the facility. Because the patients regularly don’t remember how injuries occurred, the AICDC uses the cameras to protect themselves from accusations, Benson said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, nurses constantly answered the phone as they filed papers at their station, occasionally glancing at the monitors.
Elevator doors opened and two medics wheeled in a middle-aged man who, except for a cast on one arm, was naked from the waist up.
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by the band Green Day came out of the stereo above the nurses’ monitors.
“That’s Ray,” Benson said as one of the technicians drew shut the plastic blue curtain. “And he’s a happy drunk.”
Ray is a regular.
When the curtains open on Ray, he comes out in orange, waving and smiling at the nurses and techs he recognizes. One of the technicians ushered Ray through a group of about six people waiting to be released and down the men’s hall.
The cramped central corridor of the facility can quickly become jammed as the intoxicated, the hungover and the employees shuffle around one another.
From the corridor stretch three halls: one 39-bed hall for the men, an 11-bed hall for the women and a wing for the counselors and dining hall.
Every so often, nurses get up from their cockpit to make rounds and check each client’s vitals.
The facility provides minor medical care, which includes running vitals and prescribing some medications, the most extreme being Valium.
Behind the nurses is a small, locked room that holds the client’s small belongings, medications and contraband.
One box of contraband is overflowing with knives and scissors taken from recent clients.
‘A tough business’
“Detox is a tough business,” Benson said. “Insurance companies don’t want to pay for it, so it’s hard to get paid to do it. So it’s not real lucrative.”
Adding to the financial stress is staffing. The clinic employs 68 people and has at least seven working at any given point of the night.
“It’s a staffing nightmare,” Benson said. “You have to have staff 24/7.”
And it was staffing issues that put the current company, the AICDC, in charge of 1800 Chicago back in 2002.
The Salvation Army ran the facility for Hennepin County for six years before getting out of the business.
At the time, the Salvation Army was facing a reported $61,000 monthly budget shortfall and had employees clambering to unionize.
For weeks, the county struggled to find a group to step in and take over the facility. Finally, they came to AICDC, which was able to carry over many employees, Benson said.
In fact, most at the center have made a career of handling the highly intoxicated.
Counselors at 1800 Chicago are designed to be the mentors at the facility.
And, when it comes to sitting down and talking to University students and other young people, they have noticed a trend.
“We have some young kids who come through here and you go ‘jeez,'” counselor Gary Wick said. “It’s been more than ever for some reason.”
Wick said he has noticed a significant increase over the past two or three years.
Counselor Randall Stukel has noticed a trend among students also.
In addition to a higher number of students, Stukel said that the amount of alcohol students drink in a night has increased.
“Whenever the drinking of shots started,” which Stukel said really picked up four or five years ago, “it’s troublesome, that’s what it is.”
Trends like these worried Benson, who worked in adolescent treatment before detox.
“I see some of those clients coming through [detox],” Benson said. “[These trends are] a statement about where we are going to see people in 10 years.”