Booze ban has fans in Tacoma
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Washington state Liquor Control Board will hold a public hearing tonight on a proposal to ban cheap, high-alcohol beers and wines in six square miles of the city, including downtown, Belltown, Capitol Hill, the University District, Central Area and Chinatown International District. The hearing runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave.
It isn't often that Seattle looks to Tacoma's historically troubled Hilltop neighborhood for inspiration.
But that's happening as city leaders look for ways to rid the streets of homeless alcoholics.
The state Liquor Control Board tonight will hold a public hearing on a request by Seattle to designate more than six square miles of the city a mandatory "alcohol-impact area" (AIA).
Within the AIA boundaries — including downtown, Belltown, Capitol Hill, the Chinatown International District, Central Area and University District — grocers would be prohibited from selling 34 brands of beer, malt liquor and fortified wines, from Olde English 800 and Pabst Ice to Night Train Express.
That mimics a strategy that Tacoma credits with rejuvenating its Hilltop neighborhood, which has long struggled with crime, drug dealing and an unsavory reputation.
But what exactly did the Hilltop AIA accomplish?
"Honestly, we ran some people out," said Tacoma Police Officer Greg Hopkins, a 27-year veteran who is the community liaison to the Hilltop neighborhood. Unable to get their usual drink, many homeless alcoholics — and others who used to drink on the streets — moved elsewhere.
The alcohol rules, imposed in 2002, were not the only reason Hilltop rebounded. Residents organized regular trash cleanups and set up card tables on street corners to play cribbage and ward off drug dealers.
The strategy brought some relief to Hilltop, but some of the problems with homeless encampments and public drinking migrated to Tacoma's Eastside. Neighbors there are talking about asking for their own AIA.
Hopkins says he knows anecdotally that some of his city's homeless alcoholics left town. While visiting Seattle last year, he recognized two panhandlers who used to live in Tacoma.
Citywide alcohol-related emergency calls declined for a couple years in Tacoma, but returned last year to pre-AIA levels. And the head of the city's sobering center estimates the number of chronic street alcoholics is unchanged.
Still, Hilltop leaders say the AIA was key to their neighborhood's revival. They'd never go back to the way things were before.
"Now there are not drunks on the street. You can walk into the convenience stores without somebody trying to bum money to buy beer," said James Collins, president of the advisory board for the Hilltop Action Coalition, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1979. "I remember a time when you could go out and pick up 40-ounce bottles off the street all day. We just had a spring cleanup and didn't find any beer bottles."
A 2003 report by Washington State University researchers generally praised the Hilltop AIA, noting a 61 percent reduction in calls to police for "liquor in the park" in the neighborhood in the year after the restrictions went into effect.
Seattle has tried similar tactics before, designating Pioneer Square an AIA in 2003. But the rules there are not as strict as in Tacoma. Although fortified wines are banned, stores can still sell the same brands of cheap, high-octane beer, just not in single containers and not between 6 and 9 a.m.
Soon after the Pioneer Square AIA was adopted, other Seattle neighborhoods — Capitol Hill in particular — began complaining that homeless alcoholics had simply relocated. Seattle officials now say Tacoma's approach was better.
"The Pioneer Square AIA was too small of a geographic area to really have an impact and we never had the banned-products list," said Jordan Royer, public-safety adviser to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. "We feel like we have a better chance of success with those rules."
The proposed ban on many beers and wines worries owners of small convenience stores, who fear they'll be driven out of business.
"I don't know what kind of products we are going to sell," said Elias Kemaw, who opened his market in the Central Area five years ago. "There is no way anyone comes to my convenience store and buys the rest of the stuff I have without this beer and wine."
But city officials say such concerns are outweighed by the complaints of neighborhoods with large numbers of homeless men and women drinking in public.
Seattle officials acknowledge the AIA could push some public drinking to other neighborhoods. But they believe no single neighborhood would be likely to attract a large concentration of homeless alcoholics.
The AIA is only a part of Seattle's strategy for dealing with homeless alcoholics. The city also has opened an apartment building at 1811 Eastlake Ave. for 75 of the most troubled street alcoholics. Residents are allowed to drink in their rooms but must follow rules banning disorderly conduct.
In Tacoma, the Hilltop neighborhood still sees some of the same street alcoholics that have been there for years. But they don't gather in big numbers, and when they stay inside the AIA, they don't get as drunk, said longtime Hilltop activist Jeanie Peterson.
"We ended up with the same drunks, but it was like a higher quality of drunks," Peterson said. "They'd buy a Bud instead of Olde English. Then they were pleasant instead of that sloppy, vomiting, slobbering."
Mary DeGruy, program director for Tacoma's sobering center, said she also sees a difference between alcoholics who stay inside the AIA and those who venture outside to buy more potent beers and wines.
Those who go outside are more likely to wind up in the emergency room, she said. Those who stay still drink, but they don't get quite as drunk. "Their behavior is more manageable," she said.
Overall, DeGruy said Tacoma still has roughly the same number of chronic street alcoholics as before the AIA. But she agreed with Hilltop activists that the AIA has been a success.
Without the attention the AIA brought to the plight of street alcoholics, the sobering center might never have opened. The small facility offers mats on the floor for inebriated homeless people to sleep it off. They also can seek treatment for their addiction.
"I think the AIA brought focus to a group of people who were not the focus before," said DeGruy.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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