Juneau faces homeless chronic inebriate problem

An affordable-housing group is looking for ways to reduce the number of chronic inebriates downtown. The Juneau Homeless Coalition met Thursday to begin gathering information and planning for new programs.

Juneau Police Officer Tracy Murphy attended the meeting. His beat is downtown Juneau. He says he spends much of his time dealing with disruptive drunks.

“It’s a constant trucking for me. A stop here, a stop there, all the nooks and crannies, everybody goes where they go to drink and hang out. And now with the weather, you can see there’s a lot more loitering and trespassing inside of the businesses,” he says.

Stores and offices in the downtown core clean up after their trash, including human waste.

The library’s Mark Whitman says it’s a problem there too.

“I’m increasingly concerned because I saw this summer some extremely violent behavior in the library itself that caused injury to people. And I’m not sure what we can do. It’s not something that we’re trained to deal with,” he says.

Whitman and Murphy were among about 40 people at the Juneau Homeless Coalition’s meeting on chronic inebriates.

Substance abuse professionals, housing program managers, and representatives of government, social-service and business groups talked about the problem and possible solutions.

Juneau Economic Development Council Affordable Housing Coordinator Scott Ciambor  says comparing notes helps.

“A lot of times these agencies are dealing with the problem on their own. So what ended up happening today was a good information-sharing among those agencies that work most frequently with the homeless chronic inebriate population,” Ciambor says.

Those at the meeting said Juneau has around 30 homeless chronic inebriates, some from other Southeast communities. Many have mental health problems, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or other complicating issues.

They said to find solutions, they need more details about the depth of the problem.

“The take-away from this meeting was, a group of those agencies that deal with the same folks day in and day out to go ahead and start investigating the question of who exactly are these folks and what exactly are their needs so they can be addressed,” Ciambor says.

That information will be used to plan for new programs or facilities.

One approach discussed would be a “wet” shelter, a supervised hotel or center where drinking is tolerated.

Another model, called Housing First, provides efficiency apartments and ties residents to assistance programs. Yet another, called 100,000 Homes, identifies the most vulnerable homeless and applies a more intensive treatment system while getting them off the streets.

Some at the meeting also discussed stricter enforcement. That includes a focus on bars and liquor stores. City attorney John Hartle says it’s illegal to sell alcohol to an intoxicated person.

“It’s kind of addressing it from the supply side. In 18 years that I’ve been at the city, though, I’ve never seen an arrest,” Hartle says.

Another idea was to turn some alcohol-related citations into misdemeanors after a certain number of offenses. That would send people to jail, rather than charge fines that will never be paid.

But that’s what some inebriates want: time with food and shelter, even if it’s in jail. Some view treatment programs the same way.

Murphy, the downtown police officer, says he’s seen some people go sober. But on the streets, it’s hard to stay that way.

“I check with them every day. And we count the days together. And it’s saddening to come back after a month to see that they’ve fallen into the same group, the same pressures. It’s there, they just can’t get away from it,” Murphy says.

Some in Juneau’s coalition will attend a statewide homeless issues conference next month in Anchorage. There, they’ll find out more about new programs, including the 100,000 Homes campaign.

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