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.