"Instead, we're spending it to shove these people back out onto the street in 36 months," says an exasperated Jack Gustafson, who represents state rehabilitation directors in Washington. /^ "We'll buy their drugs for them for three years, but we won't give them in-patient treatment. It's insane."
Nor will the crackdown achieve the results that Congress promised to taxpayers when it vowed to purge addicts from the rolls. That's because most of them suffer from other physical or mental disabilities that will still qualify them for aid.
"The fact is that drinking and drugging is usually just part of the problem," says Joe Manes, a Washington mental health activist. "They usually have a complex of ailments that may or may not be related to their substance abuse."
Willard Redpaint is a walking illustration.
'Pints away from dead'
Most mornings, the 42-year-old Dakota Indian can be seen stumbling down Larimer Street on the graffiti-scrawled industrial fringe of downtown Denver, a bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine in his trembling hand and a glassy film across his bloodshot eyes.
At 10:30 on a bright, clear morning in August, he is already drunk. So drunk that when he blows into a Breathalyzer at a nearby homeless shelter he registers a potentially lethal .42 blood alcohol level -- four times the amount to be considered legally intoxicated.
"God almighty, Willard!" blurts Bob Cote, director of the shelter. "You're about two pints away from dead!"
He breaks into a heated lecture, brow-beating, accusing. He reminds Willard Redpaint that at least 41 men have killed themselves on Larimer Street with disability aid money in the past few years.
"You knew a lot of those guys, didn't you?" Mr. Cote demands. "You want to end up like them?"
"I like my wine," Willard Redpaint replies sleepily. "I like to drink."
Reeking of urine and garbage from four nights of sleeping in an alley, he says he can't remember how long he has been getting disability checks. Court records show it has been at least since 1985.
But alcoholism is far from his only problem.
Willard Redpaint is mentally retarded. And his brain is damaged from a car accident that sent him hurtling through the windshield of a pickup truck when he was a child. He signs his name with an "X" because he cannot read or write.
When he was 4, a gang of thugs strangled his father during a robbery. A few years later, his mother was taken away to a mental institution. By the time he was 15, he was drifting the Western high country alone.
His earliest arrival in Denver is recorded in court files at age 25, when police found him stumbling drunk down the center of a six-lane interstate in the middle of the night. Since then, he has been arrested 16 times in alcohol-related incidents.
In 1988, he beat another homeless man to death with a slab of concrete over a stolen radio. Convicted of manslaughter, he served three years in prison, feeding his habit with homemade potato wine.
"It gives you a hangover in the morning," he says of his drinking. "And I'll end up dying. But that's the only bad part."
Each morning, he goes to a homeless aid station where social workers dole out his monthly check to him in $10 installments.
"I can buy four bottles of wine with that much," he says. "That's a lot of wine."
Left without treatment, counseling or supervision, Willard Redpaint receives just enough money every day from U.S. taxpayers to drink himself to the edge of death.
And the crackdown launched by Congress last summer with much election-year rhetoric will do nothing to stop him. If Social Security cuts off the checks because of his alcoholism, all he will have to do is reapply, citing mental retardation and brain damage.
Nor do drug counselors and social workers expect any of the other measures Congress passed in August to have much effect. Among the mandates were orders for Social Security to force addicts into treatment programs that don't exist and to hire special inspectors to make sure they don't misuse their checks.
But the agency has had inspectors in 18 states for years. And they say they have been consigned to failure by a lack of funding.
In California, Social Security monitored addicts so poorly that it continued to send checks to 119 of them while they were in prison, the state attorney general found last year. And in Illinois, a Chicago firm lost track of 7,000 more because Social Security never provided a list of their names.
And Social Security does not expect to be able to tighten supervision with the money Congress wants to spend on the job. Rather, private firms will be paid roughly $600 per addict to monitor their whereabouts and make sure they are signed up on waiting lists until their checks run out in 36 months.
"Obviously, one long-term goal is to rehabilitate people," says Commissioner Shirley S. Chater, the agency's head. "And the way we do that is to have these monitoring agencies encourage the addict's sense of individual responsibility to find treatment for himself."