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. 

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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