Best practice social policy for street alcoholics?
April 28, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

What is considered the best, most humane policy for dealing with street alcoholics these days?

In my city, we have a ban on carrying open vessels or drinking alcohol in the CBD. So the local population of hard-core drunks has moved to the secondary centres, and they are causing a lot of grief with locals: scaring young and old with their behaviour, vomiting and pissing all over the place, and generally stinking up the area. The local council is proposing to deal with this by extending the liquor ban to cover the whole city. When asked where this would leave the average citizen having a bottle of wine at a picnic, the answer was that the police would use their discretion. A little background here.

I am making a submission opposing this policy on various grounds. I think it would be a better submission if I could propose some credible alternative proposals for the city to deal with its small (but very visible) group of hardcore street drinkers.

I already know about wet hostels. What other strategies are forward thinking urban authorities using? I'd prefer to learn about solutions that rely on incentives rather than punishment, but most of all ones that have some sort of track record.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't there a public intoxication law? Is it not adequate somehow?
posted by cmoj at 3:28 PM on April 28, 2010

- Bars, pubs, clubs, etc.
- Visible police presence in vicinity of said bars
- Weekly street cleaning
posted by Sys Rq at 3:29 PM on April 28, 2010

In the US, "Housing First" is the most progressive -- and effective -- thing I've heard of. Tough sell, though.
posted by Dimpy at 3:32 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Isn't there a public intoxication law? Is it not adequate somehow?

There's a summary offence called "disorderly behaviour" which in my opinion ought to cover the current case but which apparently is not being used. We did away with public intoxication laws and drunk tanks years ago, don't ask me why. I suspect (but don't know for sure) that the thinking is that disorderly behaviour is punishable by fine, which isn't much deterrent to people who spend all their money on booze first, and it's only usable as an enforcement measure afterwards. Whereas under the liquor ban, the police can confiscate liquor which nips the objectionable behaviour in the bud.

For the record, I'm opposed to the liquor ban because of the explicit claims that it's going to rely on police discretion to work well, whereas I see that as giant potential source of "drinking while non-white/poor/young" offences and consequent erosion of faith in the police and council officials.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:36 PM on April 28, 2010

The pragmatic, non-Utopian answer: Give them somewhere else to go.

It is sooo easy to say you can't do that here, but as long as the people (homeless, unable to go home, compulsively seeking others in a similar condition) exist, they are going to exist somewhere.

The ideal would be to 'cure' such people, but centuries of trying hasn't worked.

Everybody is going to be NIMBY but in every large city I've seen there needs to be a Bowery district, a network of alleyways, parks or underneath overpasses. A reservation for the unwanted. Once it is known it will be used.

The bonus to this? You will know where to take the bologna sandwich you made for karma's sake and where to take the blankets during the sudden cold snap.
posted by Some1 at 3:44 PM on April 28, 2010

There's the horrible-music approach (e.g., Celine Dion, Disney tunes) that some plazas and outdoor malls use to discourage loitering by teens, etc., without discouraging their target users. I also heard a rumor that some cities will pay for one-way bus tickets out of the city. Probably pretty costly.

The best approach I've ever heard is to get more people out on the sidewalk. Downtown San Francisco has its share of drunk homeless loiterers, but few people mind because there are hundreds of other people using that same sidewalk. That approach just requires Jane Jacobs's round-the-clock-city mixed-use development to succeed.
posted by salvia at 4:25 PM on April 28, 2010

Anchorage has a big problem with chronic inebriates, and there's been some pretty good coverage in the Anchorage Daily News.

The current strategy, as Dimpy mentioned, is "housing first," and Anchorage is basing a program on Seattle's 1811 Eastlake, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:34 PM on April 28, 2010

Like Dimpy I was going to mention Housing First, but it sounds like the OP isn't talking about a place for people to live, but a place for them to congregate and drink that is not a bar or pub (which, presumably, wouldn't put up with such people).
posted by alms at 4:36 PM on April 28, 2010

Response by poster: To clarify, I know about the housing programme approach -- that's what we call a "wet hostel" here. I think they're a great idea and I will be advocating them in my submission.

The actual problem that people are complaining about is the anti-social behaviour of street drinkers. If things that help the drinkers themselves have the effect of reducing that behaviour, that's cool and I'll include them in my submission.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:43 PM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: Dimpy is right, Housing First is gaining traction in social policy circles as a way to reduce both the public nuisance and the personal misery of inner-city homelessness. Basically, it acknowledges that although people may become homeless for a variety of reasons, people who are chronically homeless often become trapped in their situation by substance addiction or mental illness. Housing First programs turn the problem upside down by offering accommodation and intensive social support - first you get a basic apartment, then you get addiction counselling, mental health care, life skills classes, reminders to take medication - whatever is needed to keep you from ending up back on the streets.

You might want to take a look at HomeGround in Melbourne and Common Ground in Adelaide for examples of how this New York homelessness strategy is being implemented in the Antipodes. Housing First programs are often sold to local policymakers as a way to save money in the long term. Instead of homeless people ricocheting from emergency rooms to police cells to detox centres and then back to the streets, they can receive the services they need in one place. The US 'Homelessness Tsar' Philip Mangano gave a good explanation of the philosophy when interviewed on Australian radio.
posted by embrangled at 5:04 PM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: Programs like the Serial Inebriate Program in San Diego focus on the most frequent of "frequent fliers" like these 9 patients who spent 2,700 days in the ER. These are generally individuals with a long history of chronic homelessness, frequent use of the 911 system, often long histories with the police and the justice system, and typically substance abuse and/or mental health conditions causing/worsened by all of the above.

The idea is basically to take the top N of these folks and throw as many services at them as possible. Get them into supportive housing together, have nurses and social workers on-site 24/7, detox and drug treatment, everything, because even the most "top of the line" in supportive housing accommodations, while absurdly expensive, doesn't begin to hit the millions of dollars a year that the "top 10" in a given city consume in police/ems/hospital resources.

Basically, it's a pragmatic approach that acknowledges that a small group of people are being given far more services than everybody else, that this may be unfair, but that it's the most efficient use of resources to do everything possible to reduce the expenses of caring for the city's most expensive consumers of social services.

There was a truly excellent article on all this in a major news-magazine several years ago, but I'll be darned if I can find it. Anyone know what I'm thinking of?
posted by zachlipton at 5:06 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Actually, I bet it was Malcolm Gladwell's Million-Dollar Murray.
posted by zachlipton at 5:11 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

If your concern is about public drunkenness, I think the response that will address that is zero tolerance. You can put other programs in place like housing, social supports, etc. But ultimately your society just needs to decide that it's not going to accept people getting drunk and disturbing the peace in the way that you're describing. That won't necessarily cure the alcoholism, but it will certainly get it off the streets.

It sounds like your city isn't fed up enough with the behavior yet to take that step.
posted by alms at 5:44 PM on April 28, 2010

Sorry, here's the correct link to Common Ground Adelaide. The one I linked to above was the original from New York.

I had never heard of wet hostels, but they sound quite different to the Housing First initiatives I'm familiar with. For a start, Housing First buildings often include low-cost housing for low-income people who aren't homeless or mentally ill. This tends to dilute the social problems associated with having large numbers of very dysfunctional people in one place. It's also much easier to sell to a community than "we're going to put a hostel full of drunk people next door", which seems to be what Wellington is attempting.

I'm not aware of any well-regarded program that directly targets the antisocial behaviour of street drinkers. I guess you could have them repeatedly arrested, but that's exactly the cycle the Housing First philosophy tries to prevent. Their behaviour may be disruptive, but the root causes of the problem are a) They're on the street, and b) They're addicted to alcohol. Solve one or both of those problems and the public nuisance aspect solves itself.

As an example, 20 years ago, dozens of people were living rough in New York's Times Square. After intensive intervention by homelessness organisations, including Housing First initiatives, now there is one. It wasn't just compassion that motivated the city to do something - the local businesspeople were putting pressure on the government to "clean up" the area. Housing First initiatives helped them do that in a way that changed lives, instead of simply moving the problem around the corner.
posted by embrangled at 5:51 PM on April 28, 2010

Seattle also has a residential program for chronic public inebriates, a "wet hostel" type of situation. It has been very controversial in exactly the way that embrangled suggests (no one wants a group of these people next door), but it has also been highly successful. My recollection is that it is indeed expensive but analysis shows that it's far less costly to the public than the lives that these folks would otherwise lead--similar to what zachlipton writes about in San Diego.

Sorry, don't have references at hand but a search of the Seattle Times or city of Seattle website will doubtless turn up more information for you. Good luck, and good for you for getting involved in your city.
posted by Sublimity at 3:13 AM on April 29, 2010

Best answer: Brockwell Park in South London has a designated drinking spot, for street drinkers, that runs alongside an alcohol ban in the surrounding area. Its discretely hidden from the rest of the Park and, from what I observed, seems well used. A lot of street drinkers like to drink with others: they are not necessarily homeless, but if they do have somewhere to live tend to be understandably wary. I figure part of what made it work was that it made it easy for the police to keep a discreet eye on things, rather than having got deal with a scattered and mobile population.
posted by tallus at 2:10 PM on April 29, 2010

Response by poster: Follow-up: I made my submission in person and it seemed to go down well. Here are my speaking notes. Thanks everyone for your help. I think I was able to be much more persuasive because of your answers here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:54 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And we won a half victory. Thanks everybody, I'm sure your suggestions helped.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:59 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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