Superior filmmaker shows San Marco harbors 'No Losers'

DEREK MONTGOMERY / NEWS TRIBUNE Dan Woods produced a documentary called "No Losers," about the success of the New San Marco Apartments in Duluth. The apartments, which are in the background, provide homes for chronic alcoholics and the homeless.

It's all about a safe place to live. After that, things can only get better.

That's the message of the new documentary "No Losers,'' by Superior filmmaker Dan Woods, which celebrates the success of Duluth's downtown New San Marco Apartments complex.

The San Marco, dubbed a "wet house'' by critics, opened in May 2007 with one 30-unit wing for chronic alcoholics and another 40-unit wing for Duluth's general homeless population.

The concept drew criticism because alcoholics were not required to stop drinking to live there. Skeptics feared the building would be a magnet for crime and downtown disturbances.

Instead, it's become a model for other towns to help provide alcoholics a safe place to live while, in some cases, moving them toward recovery.


The video already is being used by supporters of safe housing for alcoholics in other towns, including Rochester, Minn.

The documentary will debut Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS Channel 8.

The film starts with several re-created shots of how residents at San Marco lived before they moved in. They were filmed using actors but in the same alleys and on the same street corners where residents say they drank until they blacked out, were mugged or passed out on the curb to be rousted by police and taken to detox, over and over and over.

"No Losers'' then moves on to personal life stories by resident alcoholics -- husbands, wives and brothers, teachers, business owners, military veterans -- all who ended up losing everything, living on the street and drinking constantly.

They each speak of traumatic experiences, and often strings of unfortunate events, that lead to their unquenchable need for alcohol and other drugs.

"After a while of shooting these, I began to realize these people grew up just like me. They just ended up down a different path,'' Woods said. "That's what I want people to take way from this. We have a place here where people live, who could be from any of our families.''

Woods is a Vietnam veteran who was stationed in the Northland starting in 1970. He decided to stay after leaving the Army. He started taking home movies in 1972 and is a self-taught independent documentary filmmaker.

Woods was recruited for the "No Losers'' project, paid for by the Minnesota Housing Corporation for Supportive Housing, National Equity Fund, Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment and Center City Housing Project.


"We wanted to tell the story to [residents of the Twin Ports] who might wonder, who lives there? What goes on there? How did these people get there?'' said Kim Davis, case manager for the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment. "People expected a zoo here. What it is is a safe place to live. What happens after that, it's up to the resident. ... We have people here experimenting with recovery. But the bottom line is housing.''

Supporters say that sobriety programs and traditional treatment simply don't work for all. But with a home, new friends and "something to lose for the first time in years'' several San Marco residents have quit drinking a gallon of vodka under a bridge each day and are down to a couple of beers per day, said Lori Reilly, San Marco site director.

No illegal drugs are allowed. Residents can drink only in their apartments.

While traditional treatment programs would call that enabling, Reilly and Davis say it's a healthier lifestyle and real progress.

The San Marco, at 230 W. Third St., is operated by Center City Housing Corp., one of the documentary's backers. Staff services also are provided by the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment. The

$9.2 million project was built mostly with state and federal money; only $50,000 in local housing grants were used.

Far from being a center of illegal and illicit activities, Duluth police say there have been almost no 911 calls to the apartments. They also note that problem calls to the downtown area have been reduced, along with expensive trips to hospital emergency rooms and endless, expensive trips to detox.

Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay is featured in the video praising the effort, as is Duluth District Court Judge Shaun Floerke, both saying that the San Marco experiment is dramatically reducing police and court time and costs handling chronic alcoholics.


One visit to detox costs about $230, supporters of the San Marco say. The first 18 residents had a combined total of more than 1,000 detox visits in recent years, including one with more than 130 in one year.

One day at San Marco costs $47, and residents pay as much of their own room and board as they can afford. The remaining cost is paid by taxpayers, but it amounts to less than would be paid for a trip to detox or the emergency room.

Davis says she's happy about the savings to taxpayers and the reduction of police calls downtown. But she's more concerned with the health and safety of the residents.

"There are a lot of principles to recovery being practiced here, even if it's not always abstinence,'' she said. "The people who live here have a community now, they are healthier now. They have something to recover for.''

The title of the documentary was easy, Woods said.

"Everybody involved here -- the city, the downtown community, the folks who live here -- everybody is a winner,'' Woods said. "Everybody is better off than if this place didn't exist.''

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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