Lacking medication to treat the assortment of mental illnesses he says he?s been diagnosed with, Mike, a homeless man living downtown, instead has figured out how to maintain a constant alcohol buzz that keeps him midway between painful sobriety and out-of-control inebriation. So far, scraping together $1.50 when he needs another 40-ouncer is far less difficult than seeking treatment.
Malt liquor and fortified wine-the latter distinguished from regular wine by a 6 to 8 percent higher alcohol content, the former from beer by a 1 to 4 percent higher alcohol content-are the most seriously abused drugs in the nation, say addiction specialists. Cheap booze is the substance of choice for the most vulnerable populations: inner-city poor, homeless and many chronic alcoholics.
Fortified liquor is cheap ($1.29 for a 40-ounce bottle of King Cobra), accessible, comes in large bottles and often packs twice the punch of its more expensive counterparts. The high-sugar content of fortified wine, such as Thunderbird and Night Train, and the malt-liquor categorized Boone?s Farm that comes in half-dozen different flavors, prompts faster consumption and, subsequently, a higher level of intoxication.
It?s estimated that half of the county?s homeless-maybe 7,000 to 8,000 people-are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And, a 2001 study by the county?s Regional Task Force on the Homeless found that as many as 1,000 of San Diego County?s homeless are considered ?dually diagnosed,' meaning a person is both mentally ill and has a substance abuse problem. Dually diagnosed homeless are the most publicly disruptive and, therefore, the most publicly misunderstood.
Currently, the San Diego Police Department runs what?s called the Serial Inebriate Program, or SIP. SIP?s goal is to get chronic drunks off the streets and into treatment. The program?s impetus is the millions of dollars in emergency room visits and law enforcement costs that chronic inebriates incur for the city and county. One study done by UCSD Hospital found that in 1998 15 individuals made 299 visits to the emergency room and ran up a tab of $967,000.
In October 2002, the San Diego Rescue Mission received the OK from the City Council to move its East Village homeless outreach program to the former Harbor View Medical Center on First Avenue and Elm Street in Bankers Hill. There, CEO Jim Jackson says, it?s the Rescue Mission?s goal to have 29 beds available to treat dually diagnosed homeless. Jackson estimates that the six-month treatment program will cost around half a million dollars but could, ideally, get nearly 60 people off the streets each year. The Rescue Mission also plans to provide an emergency shelter and transitional housing for up to 435 people.
The Rescue Mission?s good intentions aside, residents and business owners fear that the building will draw some of East Village?s street dwellers uptown.
The city permit that?s allowing the Rescue Mission to renovate and move into the building requires that a neighborhood advisory committee be organized to address community concerns. Jackson says his organization has been working with this group to come up with innovative solutions. One of these measures included mapping out nearby liquor stores that sell fortified alcohol and working with the owners to try to curb sales of those products in order to prevent loitering and public inebriation by the homeless. Jackson says that while storeowners generally want to cooperate, the rub is that liquor stores rely on sales of cheap alcohol for sometimes one-third of their profits. One liquor store owner told CityBeat that alcohol sales comprise 40 percent of his revenue. During the conversation, which lasted no more than 10 minutes, he sold six 24-ounce cans of malt liquor.
As a model of what could happen if the city and storeowners work together, Jackson cites Seattle, where in 1998 the city enacted a voluntary ban on cheap booze. In Seattle?s downtown area, about 80 percent of merchants agreed to cooperate. The owners of 7-Eleven also signed on. While critics of the program say it?s merely a band-aid that unfairly prohibits poor people from purchasing ?affordable alcohol,' supporters claim it?s helped Seattle clean up its streets and has freed up city and county money that had been wasted on policing public drunks.
?One of the criticisms of [Seattle?s program],' Jackson said, 'was that all it did was displace people. You can say, well, we won?t do anything, or you could say neighborhood by neighborhood we?re going to do something about it. As imperfect as it is, I?d rather try to do something about it on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.'
The Rescue Mission?s push to curb the sale of inexpensive, potent alcohol around its new facility might have been a little easier had the San Diego City Council passed a proposed 1992 ordinance that would have placed restrictions on liquor sales in the central and southeast parts of the city.
In 1982-the dawn of the city?s massive redevelopment process-the City Council passed an ordinance restricting alcohol sales in the Gaslamp Quarter, citing the concentration of social services in that area. Under the ordinance, which still stands, the sale of wines that are more than 15 percent alcohol is prohibited, as are sales of single cans of malt liquor. Sales of chilled alcoholic beverages are also forbidden, and a store?s quarterly profits from liquor sales can?t be more than 20 percent. In 1992, the ordinance was expanded to cover the city?s entire redevelopment area. CityBeat, however, found at least one liquor store that clearly wasn?t in compliance, selling both fortified wine and chilled, individual cans of malt liquor.
Restrictions on alcohol sales don?t apply elsewhere in the city unless a liquor store wants to set up shop in an area with a crime rate 20 percent higher than the city average or unless a community and the police formally protest what an incoming or existing liquor store is selling. In that case, the state?s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) can place restrictions on varieties and sizes of liquor the store can sell.
In 1991, the City Council's Public Services and Safety Committee urged the city attorney to explore the possibility of extending the ban on sales of fortified wine to central and southeast San Diego, citing 'relevant health and safety issues.' A March 1992 memo from the city attorney gave the proposed ordinance the go-ahead, but, says Dr. Cleo Malone, a long-time community activist and current head of Palavra Tree, a drug and alcohol prevention program located in Southeast San Diego, the ordinance never made it to the City Council.
He writes off its failure to the city's fear that such a law would be difficult to enforce and could be legally challenged by the state, which has final say in any restrictions put on alcohol sales. Malone later pushed for and was successful in getting the city to implement land-use restriction in Southeast San Diego that would prevent an over-concentration of liquor stores and keep those businesses away from schools and places of worship.
For now, says Malone, the only way to monitor liquor sales is at the grassroots level. 'Enforcement is complaint-driven,' he said. Palavra Tree is working to mobilize and train its community to police liquor stores that are selling to minors or obviously intoxicated people or are attracting a clientele that create a public safety problem.
At the citywide level, the Downtown San Diego Partnership and a project called Vitality San Diego, the latter implemented by the county's Health and Human Services Agency, are working to curb the sales of cheap booze in downtown and uptown San Diego.
But, says Vitality San Diego Director Dan Tomsky, limiting sales of alcohol is only the first step, especially in areas where there's a high concentration of homeless people. 'If East Village continues to change and gets cleaned up and there's an effort to not have the serial inebriates in that vicinity-until the day our community's fully resolved issues of lack of housing and jobs and proper mental health services, there's always going to be a homeless population.' Cleaning up one area, he said, might simply displace individuals into the next neighborhood over.
Furthermore, said Malone, working against community-based efforts is the reality of the marketplace. 'A merchant's job is to identify things that people want and make it available to them,' he said. As one liquor store owner down the street from the new Rescue Mission facility put it, until Anheuser-Busch decides to stop making King Cobra, he's going to keep it on his shelves.