Public Drinking Downtown Becoming A Polarizing Issue

Problems seem to involve a small, but chronic group of offenders.


Public drinking arrests after complaints from downtown business owners and residents have ignited a debate here on Patch and on Facebook.

Many consider this a quality of life issue, and I agree.

This is an issue that has long concerned me. Just about 10 years ago, I was appointed to what was called "The Mayor's (Stanley Usovisz) Task Force On Homelessness." This group was formed to address concerns with the move of the Salem Mission, now known as , to its current location. I was invited to participate, because I was a very vocal critic of the way both the Salem Mission and the city were dealing with those who choose to spend their days drinking in public.

While we had some success in dealing with associated issues, the public drinking problem has continued unabated. It doesn't help that the laws as written make it virtually impossible to reign in the problem.

The police need to personally see people drinking in order to make an arrest. When an arrest does occur, a return to the street is almost guaranteed within a day or two. All officers can do when it comes to public drunkenness, is place someone in protective custody. Repeat offenders may get locked up for 30 days, but then they are free to offend again, because there are no greater repercussions. There seems to be no next step.

Over the last few days, I walked the city and took a personal look at some of the places that have become associated with this public nuisance.

As I walked, I ventured to places where these individuals tend to congregate. Some are fairly obvious and visible, but a few are not.

On the northeast side of the North Street overpass, alongside the railroad tracks and the old crane, lies a favorite summertime campsite for those that choose this lifestyle. A group of five or six spent their nights there this past summer up until the weather began to cool. Their encampment was sheltered from view by the trees and bushes.

One day a few months ago, I  stopped and spoke with two of these men. One of the advantages to this spot they told me, is its proximity to both Lifebridge and the . They can check and compare the daily lunch and dinner offerings each day before deciding where to eat.

The fact is, this is actually a very small group of people causing daily problems. No more than a dozen depending on the time of year. Most who live and work downtown recognize them when we see them.

I have known four of them for years, two of them from grammar school. A few  others I have dealt with in one capacity or another over the years. Each of them has been banned from Lifebridge at one time or another because of behavioral issues. At least two are currently banned.

Why work when you can panhandle outside of local businesses? The Hawthorne Block is a prime example. The locally owned businesses there are constantly calling the police and complaining, while the corporately owned places do nothing. One place has consistently failed to discourage panhandling within their business over the years. It is not unusual to see their restroom monopolized by these characters many mornings.

It is understood that many homeless have intellectual disabilities that contribute to their situation. I do not believe that is the real issue for many that are downtown every day panhandling to support their drinking lifestyle. For one reason or another, these guys made a conscious decision to become what they are.

The only solution is for those who care to be aware and proactive. Refuse to tolerate this behavior around your home, your business, or around a business you frequent. If a local business is tolerant of this behavior, let them know that you are not. Document what you see, call the police, and let local elected officials hear your complaints. 

john December 03, 2011 at 09:02 PM
The most recent arrest,the guy named Talbot, has been arrested so many times it's hard to believe.This problem is almost impossible to control. They get arrested,sleep it of in a heated cell and do it again the next day. You can't force them into treatment,you can't put them in jail and you can't give them an area to do what they want.They are attracted here by the shelter weather they use it or not.These few are killing themselves and we have little control over them.
john December 03, 2011 at 09:14 PM
With regard to what happens around your store and at Pickering Wharf in general,I think Rockett should have security people who patrol that property.If not them then the condo association should address it. One way or another,for that area, it is controlable.
alex December 03, 2011 at 09:44 PM
My friend parked her car across from the Hawthorne Hotel this morning and ran over two empty alcohol bottles and punctured her tire. When you allow homeless people by the dozens and more than enough low income housing into your city you deteriorate the city as a whole. Now with the school system failing why would people want to move here or visit here?
Justin Mattera December 03, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Salem is a fantastic city to live, work and spend time in. It's one of the best cities north of Boston. The bums are definitely an issue and hopefully an issue that will be resolved soon, but in no way does it make Salem any less of a city. Come an visit Salem and enjoy any one of our dozens of restaurants and i'm sure your mind will change.
Ruth Montville December 03, 2011 at 10:25 PM
I realize all has been said, however I really do feel that the Police need to have more capable people walking a beat in and around the problem areas. How about the walkway by the Beverly Cooperative Bank, when I park in the lot, there are clearly many "Bums" (sorry) visibly drinking in the morning or sleeping. Now we have two kinds of "trash" not being cleaned up in downtown Salem.
windpower December 04, 2011 at 01:33 PM
Great comments here . As a city that wants to have a tourism base they need to get this under control .Taking police off of construction hole watching and on a walking beat would help ,as would local business making it uncomfortable for them . The mayor should take a walk some day to visit her new "harbor walk" . As they walk the talk !
Justin Mattera December 04, 2011 at 03:44 PM
I agree that the Mayor should 100% take a stroll from the Wendy's Riverwalk, down behind the stores in Pickering Wharf and then up towards the Hawthorne Hotel. This would show the large presence of bums, trash and "stains" on the ground. As for local businesses making it "uncomfortable" for them, what would you suggest? I see this going down the wrong path. It is not my job to control the bums, its is the cities or property owners job. I can see a heated debate between two parties escalating rather quickly and instead of getting rid of these guys, I would find myself right there with them in jail. I do see that this article has opened the eyes to many and hopefully has a fast effect on this ongoing issue.
William Legault December 04, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Some businesses are very active in discouraging the sort of malingering activity we are discussing here. Those that are, seem to be locally owned and run. Being a daily presence in your business provides an awareness that is impossible to acquire in a business owned by a far away corporation. Many of the places where these guys congregate to panhandle are owned by "absentee" corporations who fail to provide clear direction or empowerment to their employees in dealing with this issue.
Ruth Montville December 04, 2011 at 04:19 PM
I forgot to mention on my earlier comment about something that I saw on last Thursday early afternoon. As regarding p---ing in public. Driving on North Street waiting for the light by the Witch House there in plain sight a "gentleman" proceeding to unzip his pants while staggering and doing "his thing" right there on the sidewalk for all to view. Now that is not something anyone wants to see anywhere let alone across from the New Court House, a bus stop, and an area known to be walked by tourists. How can this be fixed?
Justin Mattera December 04, 2011 at 04:27 PM
Bill, as I 100% agree with you about your comment, what do you think the Salem Police Department would say to us handling this issue? You and I are similar in many ways and both would not have an issue with approaching these guys and asking them to vacate, but what if they don't? With you and I having a rather short fuse for issues/people like this, would things escalate? Would the police be called in and if so would I be prosecuted for defending myself/property/business? I've added a article that was on Sawmpscott patch last month that involves a friend of mine that was defending his property and is now being prosecuted to the fullest extent. I do realize that this post has strayed a little from your original story, but this could easily happen. http://swampscott.patch.com/articles/anthony-mckay-update
john December 04, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Police construction details are paid by the construction company so the city has no authority to remove them from that detail. As for the mayor taking a walk,that already happened at the official opening and if she was going to take another the police would clear it out first.
William Legault December 04, 2011 at 06:11 PM
I would never suggest that you or any other business owner confront these guys personally. It is critical however, that business owners such as you continue to stay active and vocal with landlords, police, and elected officials.
john December 04, 2011 at 06:14 PM
With regard to the boardwalk,is there really anyone that didn't see this coming? Another poor decision by Salem.
Jared Robinson December 04, 2011 at 06:17 PM
This is why we can't have nice things.
Justin Mattera December 04, 2011 at 06:29 PM
With all this conversation, lets hope the decisions made to remedy the situation is prompt and effective by Salem Police.
William Legault December 04, 2011 at 06:30 PM
Would it have been a better decision to leave it as an undeveloped rundown parcel where we would probably not even notice these sorts of activities? Not in my view, not at all. I will always support cleaning up, developing (with limits), and creating accessible spaces for the general public to use. With the good, of course there always come the not so good. Better to do something than nothing at all.
Justin Mattera December 04, 2011 at 06:39 PM
The new boardwalk looks great, and as Bill said, it's better to have this than a rundown parcel of land that sits vacant. I'm all for these construction projects in Salem, they do much more good than bad.
john December 04, 2011 at 06:42 PM
I don't see what there is to enjoy from the building of that walk way.The money would have been better spent elsewhere,such as Winter Island,where the city has done nothing for 20 years.People seem to agree that there is little the city can do about public drinking so what does that say about the future of the walk way? Mud at low tide on one side and high tension wires and a substation onth other. I don't see any reason why I would want to walk down there.
Jared Robinson December 04, 2011 at 07:39 PM
I would love to hear an editorial from "John" about all his issues with the city. He obviously has a lot to say and it'd be nice to see it all in one post.
KlassySalem December 04, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Yes please. Aubry, please make John a Patch blogger.
Jared Robinson December 04, 2011 at 08:42 PM
He certainly has a lot of opinions, and whether I agree with all of them or not, I would love to hear them all. Give him a "You know what really grinds my gears?" segment.
john December 04, 2011 at 08:48 PM
Sorry guys . I just spent half an hour making my points and when I hit submit it told me it was too long.
Jared Robinson December 04, 2011 at 09:01 PM
I would suggest writing it in Word first so you don't lose it in that instance. I've lost tons of articles that i was composing online
john December 04, 2011 at 09:03 PM
I think I should explain something with regard to my relationship with Patch. Some time ago we had a situation in my neighborhood that resulted in Salem News coverage as well as Patch. A reporter came to a neighbors house looking for a comment. When the homeowner asked who he was he stated he was with the Salem News.When the owner asked for an ID the person walked away. I was later able to determine he was a Patch reporter and I emaild Aubrey. Aubrey wanted me to tell what story I was reffering to which I would not do.Why? Because I stated it was about Patch credability.I still have concerns in that regard.
Justin Mattera December 04, 2011 at 10:50 PM
I also would like to be able to become a Patch blogger, I have an opinion on everything.
Diane Wolf December 05, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Diane Wolf December 05, 2011 at 12:08 AM
I've reached out to the police, the city and the folks at Lifebridge - they all advise me to just call the police every time I witness unruly, unwanted or illegal behavior. So that's what I've been doing, for a few years now. I am beginning to suffer from compassion fatigue... Above is a link to a photo series I did a few years back, so many nips - so many bums.
SuzannM December 05, 2011 at 01:15 PM
I hate to do the 'when I was a kid thing' there were always police walking the streets and I knew every cop and said hello just because you saw them everyday. Face to face relationships and conversations are effective. Showing a presence, Cops on a walking beat seems like the best solution (and not on bicycles or segways.) The other thing that could be effective is a social action/ intervention of social workers.counselors with addiction expertise that get out there and talk to these men. LifeBridge maybe could pitch in for this . Walk the talk... Most everyone knows Alcoholism (and addiction) are chronic life problems that can't be solved by waving a wand or forcing anyone to change. You can't force anybody but can you provide a mirror and maybe encourage them to make a positive change?
Helen December 05, 2011 at 06:18 PM
Can someone please explain to me how having a homeless shelter here in Salem is a good thing? Really. Salem is too small to absorb something like this and not have it negatively impact the city from a qulaity of life standpoint. Just another black mark against Salem. The same can be said for low income housing. For some reason people think that this is a good thing when in fact it is a bad thing. Salem could be a great city but never will be because people won't move here because of a variety of reasons and these are just a few. So sad.
john December 05, 2011 at 08:34 PM
Well said. You nailed it on all points. The city of Salem does not have the means of dealing with increased low income kids in our schools either. You have outlined a recipe for disaster. The shelter is the biggest single problem in downtown Salem.We have drunks,junkies,pot heads,perverts and people with severe pshycological problems.They stay in an area which is also the same area the tourists come to see.Poor leadership leads to poor schools,high taxes,poor services,uncontrolable traffic and a lousey place to live.Is there a positive? The college,museum,courts and hospital all continue to expand and in my opinion too much so. The killer is those institutions do not pay taxes.


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