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Downtown dilemma: Life on the street

Posted: November 24, 2011 - 1:10am

Editor’s note: Freelance writer Courtney Nelson interviewed several people who are living on the streets about their lives and their drinking habits for this first-person article. We are using only their first names.

Juneau’s chronic inebriates live in a complex sub-culture. Like many homeless people, they were hanging on until some event forced them into the street. Their situation is further complicated by their heavy dependence on alcohol. In many cases theirs are stories of generational alcohol abuse. In many cases, a new generation is being born on the street.

Emily

I met Emily, 27, sitting on the spot where she sometimes sleeps in Marine Park. She was holding a pair of wool socks someone gave her because hers were stolen off her feet while she slept. Emily described a typical night.

“If I don’t have a place to crash I start walking around at 3 a.m. and if I get lucky, and it’s a weekend, I can find someone to hang out with. We are all kind of on the buddy system here.” She drinks and walks to stay warm.

Emily has three children, ages 4, 6 and 7. Emily met the father of her children the first time she was homeless in 2002. As of early November, she was looking for housing so she could keep them from going into foster care.

She quit drinking for a while, but says losing her sister to lupus last year was a shattering experience, and she started again. When she tries to stop drinking she has seizures, though she says she is tapering off alcohol.

Her 70-year old mother is couch surfing.

Nick

Nick, 25, came to Juneau from Seattle. He’d gotten into some trouble. He was also drinking, and into heroin and other drugs. He was let go from his boat yard job when production slowed. He said he has only used alcohol in Juneau.

“I needed to change something so I figured moving would help,” said Nick who says he has members of his family in Seattle who are either in recovery or alcoholics.

He met Emily when she was grieving for her sister and moved in with her, her children, and her mother. When they were evicted, the three kids went to their father, and Emily and Nick to the street, where they do whatever they can to get by, panhandling and sometimes selling their food stamps to pay for their cell phones.

John

John, 46, is a roofer from California who took a job on a tender in Petersburg for a year. After losing his identification, a pastor advised him to go to Juneau or Ketchikan. “It was a spur of the moment thing and that’s how I ended up in Alaska. It’s all gone downhill since I moved here.” He’s been on the street for eight years.

John says he broke his neck when he fell off a roof. “I’m in constant pain and have no medical insurance to care for my condition.” He takes small jobs to pay for the two “tilts” of beer a day he says uses to treat the pain.

John says his family in the Lower 48 refuses to help. He wants medical care and solid employment so he can take care of his fiancée, Valerie.

Valerie

Valerie, 44, from Hoonah, has been living in Juneau for 24 years, and on the streets for the last 10. She says life on the streets is tough.

“Some people think because I am a female, that they can take advantage of me. My boyfriend, my fiancée, takes good care of me, but it’s tough down here. There’s nowhere to go, we have nothing to do,” said Valerie, who has faced several criminal charges involving violence.

Valerie graduated from Rainforest Recovery Center but hasn’t maintained her sobriety. She says she needs to drink two 40-ounce bottles of beer a day to maintain her alcohol level or she has seizures.

Valerie says she has fetal alcohol syndrome. She had a child with FAS who was taken away from her when the child was 6 months old and was raised by his father. Her child said in an article that he doesn’t harbor any ill will towards his mother. She had two other children with a homeless man, Greg. Those children were also taken away.

Greg

Greg, 48, has a grown daughter from a previous relationship who isn’t in the picture, besides his two children with Valerie. He is no longer with Valerie. He says he drinks to forget a past that makes him sad.

Greg has a half-brother in Juneau, Dan, who he met for the first time at their mother’s funeral. Dan says his mother was an alcoholic and drug addict who killed herself when Greg was 18 years old.

Dan, who also was a heavy drinker, has struggled with his own sobriety so he can’t take Greg in. Greg managed a restaurant in the valley, but when his relationship fell apart and he lost his children, he moved into the woods.

“If I could get my personal identification back then I could get a real job and stop living the life I’ve been living,” said Greg, adding, “what I really want is a cabin in the woods and a life of peace.”

Joni

Joni, 50, was born in Metlakatla. She moved to Juneau when she was 19, and has been living on the streets for the last five years. She became homeless after her husband left her, and she experienced another personal trauma. She has an 18-year-old daughter in town who she says is not returning her calls right now.

Joni says she has fetal alcohol syndrome. She chose to start drinking at 19. She averages a couple of pints of whiskey a day, but is trying to taper off on her own because Rainforest Recovery Center is full.

“I’m freaking out so I’m drinking myself to death,” she said with a laugh. She later said her laughter was a cover for her pain. Joni says people give her money because she did the same when she worked and had money. In November, when the nights were getting too cold, she was filling out documents so she could move in with her best friend, Doug.

Doug

Doug, 50, is from Skagway. He and Joni have been living on the streets of Juneau for five years together. “I don’t care where we live, I just want a warm place for her to be,” said Doug.

Doug was a construction worker who came to Juneau after he said his marriage ended. “I came to Juneau to get away from Skagway,” said Doug. His two children live in California.

Doug, who’s retired, is drinking about a quart of whiskey a day, and living off his union pension.

• • •

Life on the streets of Juneau for people who are homeless and alcoholics is a tough life, especially in the winter.

Chronic inebriates do whatever they can to earn money to support their alcohol habits, which for most means drinking a minimum of two 40 ounce beers a day. Some I met were drinking as much as two pints of whiskey a day. If their alcohol levels drop below a certain point, they may start having seizures, and some die.

Some are picked up by Rainforest Recovery Center or by the police who first take them to the hospital for medical clearance before they are taken to what’s called the drunk tank at Lemon Creek Correctional Facility.

To get their alcohol fix, they panhandle, barter, do odd jobs and look for financial help from charitable organizations, among other things.

Because they are almost always under the influence, they tend to lose important documentation like Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, which for many appear to be insurmountable problems and they just give up.

This feeling of helplessness often leads to anger and self-pity. They drink and then lash out and people walking down the street or aggressively panhandle and berate those who won’t give them money.

People living on the street tend to bond together and form alliances. Women say they must pair up with men for safety and warmth. This often leads to pregnancies and babies born with FAS that are taken away from the mothers. These children often end up homeless themselves.

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