Public drunkenness: When is enough enough?
Public drunkenness in Nome is like discussing the weather: Many are talking about it but cannot do anything about it, they say. There is abundant hope for solutions, but none on the horizon today.
Residents are getting fed up.
Measures to limit availability of alcohol by limiting package store hours or to clear the public thoroughfares of drunks turn out to be illegal or unpopular. The number of inebriates on downtown streets is rising, according to social services. The Nome Common Council holds work sessions about it. Tour conductors and members of Nome Chamber of Commerce say a growing number of public inebriates is hurting tourism. People “under the weather” from excessive alcohol consumption hang out around the Nome Visitors Center on Front Street and obstruct the entrance or abuse tourists entering to get information.
One tour conductor cited a recent incident when she tried to drop off a visitor at the Visitor Center and had to intercede for the safety of the tourist when inebriates menaced the lady with foul language and racist comments.
Nome police officers spend a disproportionate percentage of shifts responding to drunk calls, according to quarterly statistics drawn up by Nome Police Chief John Papasodora. Other crimes—domestic violence, sex crimes and assault—commonly involve a component of alcohol.
In comparing calls for police service in the first half of three years, 2016 shows 38 percent related to alcohol, 45 percent in 2017, and 54 percent in 2018.
Problematic alcohol use is protected by the Alaska State Constitution.
Alcoholism is a disease, not a crime, according to the Constitution. The document prohibits arrest for just plain drunkenness and advocates treatment without mentioning funding sources.
And so they go, staggering, swearing, verbally abusing passers by, fighting, passing out in the street and other public places until an ambulance crew on call out rescues them from death or harm from exposure and freezing.
An attempt to bring charges against inebriates died on the Council table a year ago, failing on a vote of 3 to 1, a vote short of the four required “yes” votes.
The idea to decrease the number of public drunks on Front Street and protect them from harm, hinged on a proposed ordinance against being drunk on a public right-of-way—street, alley or road, wherever an easement existed for public travel and transportation.
John Handeland, lifetime Nome resident and former mayor, took the public comment podium at a recent Council work session. He has had enough, he said.
“A few times when shortening liquor store and bar hours has come up, I’ve come up here and said, ‘Don’t infringe on my rights just because somebody else can’t control theirs’, but it is getting so obnoxious around here that I am changing my tune,” Handeland said. On a recent night, “I watched some of our local inebriates fighting with the St. Lawrence Island inebriates, and telling them to get their asses home, they didn’t belong here.
Things are getting more violent, too. I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt,” he said. “I’ve never considered myself a racist person, but I am called a f—ing white man, and all that, every time I wander by [the Visitors Center], and that I ‘hate Natives.’”
“There have always been folks with problems with alcohol. It hasn’t been one race or another,” Handeland said later in the conversation. “Alcohol doesn’t discriminate.”
A measure to place increasing sales tax on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana to 11 percent in winter and 13 percent in summer on this fall’s municipal ballot failed first reading at the Aug. 27 Council meeting with a 3 to 2 vote, one shy of the four needed to pass Council resolutions and ordinances.
Several social service agencies oppose criminalizing public drunkenness, for example, Nome Community Center and Kawerak Wellness Program. However, they favor the Council applying an excise tax to alcohol to reduce consumption, especially by youth, who are more responsive to price increases. An excise tax can be slapped onto alcohol by a vote of the Council, without a public vote.
Council and citizens at the work session Aug. 27 revisited limiting the hours at package liquor stores and outlawing the sales of small quantities of booze at Front Street package stores, maybe not even anywhere south of Sixth Avenue. Requiring sales of no less than 750 ml quantities would not work, Front Street vendors say; people would pool their money to get the larger bottles.
Delaying package store openings an hour till 11 a.m instead of the current 10 a.m. is not enough. Changing the current 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. did not pass the Council, but it is a start, according to Councilman Stan Andersen. Maybe opening 3 p.m., not 11 a.m. would work, he said.
“If you limit the time people can get booze, number one, you can keep track of them,” Andersen said. Also, “You can start looking at putting something on their license, so they can’t buy it.”
Andersen made it perfectly clear he meant the hours, quantities and lockout measures to apply only to liquor stores, not bars, and only liquor stores downtown—Nome Grocery and Polar Liquor Store — not the package store at Alaska Commercial at the Nome-Teller Highway.
For responsible drinkers, they have that store. “Our problem is downtown,” Andersen said.
“I’m giving you the F.Y.I.,” City Manager Tom Moran told Council members. “Polaris is going to open again, so if you are going to do something about liquor on Front Street, you are going to have to go back to the Sixth Avenue model.”
Moran broached another issue. Owners of the Polaris Hotel, which was destroyed by a fire on Halloween night 2017, had been talking to City officials about rebuilding the bar and hotel which stood on Lomen Avenue across the street from the Nome Covenant Church, less than 500 feet away and a few steps from Front Street. The Polaris Hotel and Bar would probably have grandfather rights, Moran thought.
“Polaris was part of the problem,” Andersen said. “They get drunk at the bar, leave the bar, go to the liquor store to get their booze, go back to the hotel, get thrown out, then end up at the hospital E. R.”
“I think cutting down on the hours is an excellent thing,” Handeland said. “I don’t think 3 p.m. is good enough. I think you ought to shut it down to 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and call it good.
That gives people an opportunity to get off work if they want to pick up a case of beer and go out to camp and whatever. It just takes more planning.
“If it doesn’t work or causes a lot of hate and discontent with the citizenry, maybe they will want to stand down there [on Front Street] and see what is going on,” Handeland declared. “Limiting the size of the bottle— don’t go to 750 ml, go to a liter, not less, in town. That way, if the police have to dump it, they are getting another quarter jug out of it.”
Nobody laughed, and Handeland had not finished.
Maybe drunkenness was being enabled by good intentions, he suggested.
“We’re finding more and more people in town, because they are finding Nome more friendly; they are getting what they want,” Handeland said. “While I don’t want to see people out on the street freezing at night, I think some of the things we’ve done to try to address the problem and creating N.E.S.T. and the like …We started with 30 people, and now [more] can be housed there.
“If we could blue ticket [send on air flights] people back to where they came from, that would be one thing, but you can’t,” Handeland observed.
Paul Kosto, head of the Nome Chamber of Commerce was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on shortened hours at liquor stores.
“We down at the Visitors Center live with this problem every day. We do like changing the hours, however that does impact business in town, so there’s some negative stuff there. You are talking about a tax increase possibly on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, essentially a sin tax,” he observed. “Let’s kind of stick on the alcohols side of stuff. You’re talking about people who have an addiction. It’s a mental problem, not a money problem that they are going to run into on the price of alcohol.
“Now we have a singular outfit in town. They have two locations but they essentially have a monopoly on selling booze on Front Street. In the case lot the prices went up about 25 percent from last year, and they’re still getting drunk down here, every single day,” Kosto continued. “It’s not their money. They are getting handouts from other places. They won’t care about the taxing. Maybe it is in the hours, and policing the folks who are in buying it.”
In July, the Nome Planning Commission passed a resolution recommending the Council appropriate funds and get cracking on a strategy that addresses public intoxication, loitering and vagrancy in a socially responsible and culturally appropriate manner. Hence, the work session Aug. 27.
Over a year ago, in April, 10 representatives of social service agencies and corrections organizations sent a letter to the Council, noting in the letter that ”it has become glaringly apparent the number of intoxicated persons present in the in the city’s center and surroundings has increased.”
This concern, along with SB 91’s “sweeping criminal violation changes has increased the incidence of assault, vandalism and trespassing,” according to the letter on Norton Sound Health Corp. stationery.
The letter made two requests:That the City reserve the old museum and library building on Front Street for use as a monitored day care center for homeless persons on the first floor, and on the second floor, an Alano Club an entity of sober persons seeking to support sobriety and wellness of sober persons. The plan was not for the City to staff the facility, but only to maintain ownership and allow a consortium of community organizations to use it for benefit of at-risk and in-recovery individuals.
Ever since, the building has been sold to Mason Evans of Fairbanks who plans to open a marijuana dispensary in the old library and museum building.
The letter also suggested that the City implement a 10-percent excise tax on the sale of alcohol as a solution to fund the City’s increased service needs. The excise tax would provide additional funding to allow the community to further develop solutions and to offer more recovery services for these vulnerable people.
Neither program has happened.
The April 28, 2017 letter to the Council and Mayor Richard Beneville bears the signatures of Lance Johnson, NSHC Behavior Health Services: Angie Gorn, CEO of NSHC; NPD Chief John Papasodora; Cat Clarke, state Adult Probation; Dan Fishel, Adult Probation; Sandra Martinson, executive director, AMCC; Myra Murphy, NSHC Behavioral Health Services; Briday Trainor and Sue Steinacher, Nome Emergency Shelter Team (NEST); and David Head, M. D., former NSHC medical director.
Ideas to solve the problem include limited liquor store hours, bottle size regulations, no sale lists, resolutions, ordinances—good intentions, perhaps balanced with the other philosophy: “If people want to drink, they’re gonna drink.”
“I do think having the ability and the option for those who really want to change their ways, to have some treatment options, is what we need,” Handeland said. “When Norton Sound Health Corp. gets their treatment program going, I hope they will look at having it a residential thing and not just a day treatment.”
City Manager Moran said Monday that there will be an ordinance introduced at the next regular Council meeting on Sept. 10 concerning both reduced hours and sale quantities at the down town locations.
“It’s a sad state of affairs, and will probably amount to only a drop on a fire, but that Front Street’s population’s mayhem is a major factor in what’s happening at NPD with 911 responses causing investigations to go on the back burner, so something needs to be done,” he said.