Anchorage focuses on problem of city inebriates

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Anchorage is looking for a solution to its growing problem of chronic inebriates.

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Anchorage Police Chief Robert Heun said Wednesday that the problem of drunks living on Anchorage streets is as bad as it ever has been. Last year, it cost the city about $4 million.

Decades ago, when a person was arrested for being drunk in public, they were sent to the city "honor farm" for a few weeks to grow vegetables and dry out.

Heun said it's time to get people off the streets and start sending them to the farm again because what the city is doing now is not working.

"We're dealing with the same people over and over again," he said.

Heun's comments came at a meeting at City Hall, where city officials brainstormed with a small group of Assembly members over ways to shrink the number of city inebriates.

C.W. Floyd, a policy planner for the city health department, talked about perhaps opening a so-called "wet house," or publicly funded housing where people are allowed to drink.

While such housing is often seen as little more than a place to let alcoholics drink, Floyd said it can be a way to get help to people who are already consuming so much of the public's time and money.

"No matter what you do, somehow they will find a way to drink until you find a way to get them into an environment that you can stay in contact with them for a long period of time," he said.

Heun and others said that the Community Service Patrol is overwhelmed and that valuable police time is now spent driving inebriates to a sleep-off facility downtown. Emergency room visits and jail stays add to the public costs of caring for inebriates.

About 200 to 250 chronic inebriates are living in Anchorage, according to the health department. Last year, the same 100 people were taken to the sleep-off facility 7,300 times, the department said.

Some people are picked up more than every other day, City Manager Denis LeBlanc said, and those visits cost the public about $550,000, according to a health department estimate.

During Wednesday's meeting, Assembly member Matt Claman, chairman of the public safety committee, asked if Heun saw the farm as a place people would go voluntarily.

"It might be voluntary for extending the stay, but certainly we need a tool to get people off the streets and out of the homeless camps," the police chief said.

He said Alaska's regional Native corporations should be partners in creating such a farm, because the list of chronic inebriates whom the city picks up most are predominantly Native Alaskans.

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