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Downtown dilemma: Impacts of chronic drinkers a fact of life for downtown merchants

Posted: November 24, 2011 - 1:08am
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Larry Spencer, of the Downtown Business Association, thinks the city assembly decision to ban smoking in bars and thus force people to smoke on the sidewalks has made Juneau a more dangerous place.
Larry Spencer, of the Downtown Business Association, thinks the city assembly decision to ban smoking in bars and thus force people to smoke on the sidewalks has made Juneau a more dangerous place.

The Glory Hole in downtown Juneau was established in 1984 to help anyone in need. At that time, people were passing out in the cold, sometimes even dying. Until the economic downturn, chronic inebriates were the main clients. Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk described the Glory Hole in 2009 — the year she began work there — as “strange and unmanageable.” She noticed most of the problems involved just a few people, and were always alcohol related.

The Glory Hole instituted a breathalyzer policy in 2009, which effectively eliminates services for 10-15 percent of the people who used the facility. Lovishchuk feels bad about turning them away, but she said the situation became much more manageable within a few months.

“Most of the people at the Glory Hole come to us and use us as a stepping stone to get back on their feet, but the chronic inebriate folks have been here for many, many, many years,” said Lovishchuk. Back outside, inebriates wander the streets, and look for cubbyholes in which to sleep and stay warm.

Many business owners who interact daily with inebriates, though angry and frustrated, would not speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

They all agree the inebriates need the right kind of help.

“Look at the Canvas,” said Joan Deering, owner of Paradise Café, “I consider the inebriates to be disabled and in need of a space where they can be helped.”

“I’ve been in business nine years at this location and it’s a thoroughfare from the Glory Hole to Marine Park. What disturbs me the most is that I’ve seen the same faces year after year,” said John Chapman, owner of Picture This. He thinks the problem is getting worse.

“I was driving to work one morning and saw a guy stealing booze off the back of a delivery truck, then he took off to share his score with his friends — I mean it really has a carnival type atmosphere — it’s lively,” said Chapman.

Larry Spencer is president of the Downtown Business Association (DBA) and owner of the Senate Building on Franklin Street.

“I don’t view this as a downtown problem, I view this as a community-wide problem. We have inebriates that hang out downtown and in the valley,” said Spencer, who said people focus on the problem downtown because of its economic importance.

“We’re the face of the capital city, the entertainment and cultural center, we have bars, restaurants, local shops. We’re the economic engine with the tourism and we’re a major center for work, public and private,” said Spencer, who said the DBA is concerned with the vitality and safety of downtown.

He said he didn’t know of any attacks, but thinks inebriates pose a perceived safety problem.

“It’s perceived safety, I don’t know how valid it is but when people are allowed to stand on the street and shout obscenities it doesn’t make it a good place for mothers and their kids to shop,” said Spencer, who spearheaded the panhandling ordinance that was passed by the city in 2007.

“They also responded with a private contract through the DBA in the summertime that the cruise ship tax pays to roust people from private property in the mornings so they’re gone before the cruise ship tourists arrive,” said Spencer.

Spencer believes the inebriate problem has gotten worse since the smoking ordinance was passed, because bar patrons and smokers congregate on the street. “We gained clean air in the bars and dumped the problem out in the streets,” said Spencer, who said there was more to the problem.

“I think when we have problems in the villages, lack of economic opportunity, people come here from the villages for a variety of purposes, for social services, and they come here for jail,” said Spencer, who says jail is one source of the problem.

“Once they get out, we socialize them and try to line them up with housing. Some fail and some succeed, and the ones that fail become our public inebriate problem,” said Spencer. “The more services we provide, the more of a magnet we are, or dumping ground, for an inebriate population. If you build it, they will come.”

Spencer said the DBA has discussed the topic many times over the last 10 years and they believe stricter law enforcement of panhandling and open container ordinances is the answer.

Shop owners who felt too intimidated to go on the record tell the same story of daily encounters rousting people from doorways before opening their businesses. Of cleaning up liquor bottles, cans, trash, cigarette butts, feces, urine, vomit, and the occasional needle. Of fear when having to confront the daily situations, which they feel have developed an edge. They’ve had drunk people sleep on their couches, patios and even in their cars. Some inebriates have tried to steal the keys to the place when their back was turned, screamed profanities and even taken a swing at them. All report local and tourist customers avoid their businesses when there are drunk people congregating and panhandling in front.

Most business owners feel sad about the plight of the inebriates, but for many compassion has run out. One said just the sound of a paper bag crinkling on a liquor bottle triggers him when he’s trying to work.

One coffee shop manager has been serving “no trespassing” papers that she downloads from the City and Borough of Juneau website.

Especially this time of year, people who live on the street seek a warm place to spend time.

The downtown branch of the library is one such warm place. “As long as people follow our conduct rules and don’t cause problems, they are welcome to be here. There’s no specific rule that says they can’t have had anything to drink before you get in here, it’s just how can you conduct yourself,” said Library Director Barbara Berg.

Common library misuses include doing laundry or bathing in the bathroom, eating, sleeping and talking too loudly.

Despite this, the staff is more concerned about the well-being of their patrons than conduct violations. Untrained in drug and alcohol issues, they agree that Juneau needs a facility to address the needs of the people who take shelter in the library. ”But it’s not here, or at the Glory Hole, or in the front of local businesses,” said Circulation Supervisor Mark Whitman.

Berg added any facility needs to have Internet access.

“It’s not just a luxury anymore, they need to communicate with family in distant places, get benefits for disabilities,” she said.

Both librarians said they feel that a police presence is helpful.

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