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Street Drunks Offered an Assist : Wine Sale Bans, Counseling Attack Alcoholism Problem

June 25, 1989|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — As downtown Portland grew up and out during the last decade, it squeezed its population of homeless alcoholics into a smaller and smaller part of the Old Town section north of Burnside Avenue.

Merchants in the area swiftly grew exasperated with the crime, litter and other problems that resulted, and they eventually persuaded the state to ban the sale of fortified wine and beer in the heart of the local Skid Row.

Cities from Sacramento to Seattle recently have tried similar bans to address the problem of homeless street drunks. The latest is San Francisco, where a citizens group persuaded two wine makers to suspend fortified-wine sales in one seedy neighborhood to see if it reduces public drunkenness and alcohol-related violence and illness.

Despite the appeal of dealing with the problem simply by declaring a ban, cities that have tried them report limited success--unless, as in the Portland program, such wine bans are accompanied by intensive counseling, detoxification and housing programs.

Wine bans alone are "not the solution," said J. Daniel Steffey, director of the Portland Bureau of Community Development and architect of Portland's anti-alcoholism and homelessness program. "The solution is greater counseling and health care; not trying to dry up the source but trying to reduce the demand."

It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, he acknowledged, but need not be expensive. One program here treats drug and alcohol abusers for about $160 a month for each client, with more than half the participants sober and employed at the end of six months.

In San Francisco, the people behind the latest wine ban said they were limited in what they could do because the city has too many street drunks to provide the same kind of care that is available in Portland. The nature and number of drunks, they added, had made them an immediate threat to a neighborhood populated by thousands of vulnerable pensioners and children of recent immigrants.

"This wine changes people," said Betty Mangual, president of a tenant association at one of the low-income hotels in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. "It changes their perceptions. When they're sober, they're sorry for their actions, but when they drink they're dangerous. Even the junkies aren't as dangerous.

"If they have a few beers, they might be obnoxious. But if they're drinking this wine, they'll knock down old people, chase kids. They will hurt you, hurt themselves, lay down in the street and urinate on themselves."

Phil Faight, a tavern owner and president of the Safe and Sober Streets Committee, said he hopes the Tenderloin wine ban will be at least as successful as a year-old voluntary ban arranged by liquor merchants in the Haight-Ashbury district. There, San Francisco police have noticed a decline in the number of drunks detained, although hard figures are unavailable because inebriates are only held until sober and are rarely booked for a crime.

'One Little Battle'

"We realize this (trial ban) is not THE answer, it's just one little battle," Faight said. "But if we win this battle, it will be an important step in the right direction."

Similar sentiments are behind wine bans in other cities. Seattle had the state liquor control board ban the sale of fortified wines in selected urban districts, while Sacramento prohibits downtown stores from selling small bottles of fortified wine.

Faight added that he hopes that once current stocks of fortified wine in San Francisco's Tenderloin are exhausted and their shelf space given to some other products, it will be difficult for wine makers to reestablish themselves.

Fortified wines have become the focus of Skid Row wine bans because they are the preferred alcoholic beverage of the majority of those late-stage alcoholics most often associated with urban street inebriation.

Such wines have brandy or other distilled spirits added to raise their alcohol content to anywhere from 14% to 20% or more. By contrast, table wines, such as those consumed with meals, contain from 10% to 13% alcohol.

Cheaper Ingredients

Fine sherry, port and Madeira also are fortified wines, but the products preferred by street drunks are produced with cheaper ingredients and often are mixed with fruit juices to make them more palatable.

The high alcohol level of the cheap fortified street wines and their modest prices--as low as 89 cents a bottle--make them the cheapest easily available source of alcohol on a cents-per-ounce basis, researchers have found. Alcohol in even inexpensive generic-brand vodka or other distilled spirits can be as much as 50% costlier, according to data from the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto.

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