At a Homer City Council work session Monday night on addressing the heroin and opioid epidemic in Homer, Homer Police Chief Mark Robl brought another issue to the council’s attention: an increase this summer in police response to public drunks.
“The police department has dealt with an inordinate amount of inebriates this summer,” Robl said at the work session.
This year, police have gone to 56 calls directly related to people passed out in public. In 16 of those calls, the person was so drunk police and medics had to take them to South Peninsula Hospital for a medical assessment and then into protective custody. Robl said if the patient doesn’t have insurance, the hospital bills the city for treatment. The city also pays for the jail cost.
In his 32 years with Homer Police, Robl said this is the most public drunks he’s seen.
Most of the calls have been for homeless men in their 50s and 60s, Robl said in a follow-up interview on Tuesday. Police are going not just to calls for people passed out, but alcohol-related events like drunks being issued trespass notices from bars, liquor stores and other businesses. One incident was for a man caught shoplifting three bottles of cooking sherry at Safeway.
“We’ve always had a few homeless inebriates, but nothing like this before. This particularly is a very resource consuming group,” he said. “They have severe problems.”
They’re not just tipsy drunk, but falling-down, rolling-into-the-street drunk.
“When I say they’re highly incapacitated, they’re getting to the point where they can’t walk, they can’t stand up. That’s when we get the calls,” Robl said.
In just one period from July 18-25, according to an analysis of the police blotter, police went to 17 calls for welfare checks on drunk people passed out or in danger. There were 32 other incidents that also could be considered alcohol related, such as a person being issued a trespass notice, a drunk being 86’ed from a bar and inebriates harassing people at businesses. Some of those calls include:
• A call at 1:46 p.m. on July 20 asking police to check on a man lying on the grass near the Homer Public Library;
• A call at 9:45 p.m. July 20 asking police to remove drunk men from a Sterling Highway business;
• Two calls on July 21 reporting drunk men near the Sterling Highway. Police took one to the hospital for medical clearance and then into protective custody. Another man falling into the road was given a ride home after being checked by medics, and
• A call at 5:30 p.m. July 23 asking help in escorting an intoxicated man away from a Spit business. A half-hour later, another caller asked police to remove the same man when he was passed out on a boat in the harbor.
A lot of the public inebriate calls have come from the area of the Poopdeck Trail and Hazel Avenue — the same area where Mark Matthews was found murdered three years ago (see story, page 1). That area includes a trail from the Homer Public Library to the Poopdeck Trail. At the urging of the Friends of the Homer Public Library and other citizens, the city cleared brush from along the trail and in the Town Center to make it hard for those drinking and using drugs to hide behind vegetation.
“The idea was to open it up so that it was more visible and hopefully people would want to use it more in healthy ways,” said library director Ann Dixon. “That has happened. I think people are using the trail more.”
The library also put picnic tables along the trail. One is near a bench by artist Leo Vait’s “Bone Music” Poopdeck Trail sign. That table has become a center for some public drinking, Dixon said. Homer City Council Member Donna Aderhold, who lives in the neighborhood north of the library, said at the council meeting she and her husband came home one night to hear apparently drunk people arguing from that area.
Dixon said she noticed an uptick in public drunkenness near the library in early July after the Fourth of July holiday. Robl said he thinks some of the inebriated people get Social Security, disability and other checks.
“If you notice, the first two weeks of the month are the most calls,” he said. “Those checks come out in the first part of the month.”
The library has rules of conduct asking people to be reasonably quiet and respectful of others. If someone is obviously drunk or passed out, librarians will call police. Dixon said recently librarians found a person passed out in the bushes.
“Really passed out,” she said. “We were concerned he was all right.”
Most of the inebriates encountered are not from Homer. They aren’t from the same group of people camping in vehicles near the Seafarers Memorial last winter, Robl said. Some come from Anchorage, Fairbanks and rural villages.
With a vacancy of two officers, the increase in police calls for public drunkeness is taxiing already stretched resources, Robl said. On several days last week, two or three officers on duty were tied up dealing with drunk-related issues. An intoxicated person taken to the hospital might require several hours of an officer’s time. Even in a simple welfare check, police have to assess a person’s condition and be watched for a while.
Robl said if the problem goes on, the city might have to consider measures like Anchorage’s Community Service Patrol, where drivers and vans go around picking up intoxicated people and getting them safe and off the streets.
“I’d never thought I’d see the day in Homer when we get to that point,” Robl said, “I would say of it doesn’t get better, and especially if it gets worse, we’re going to have to look at that.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.