They say that while social service agencies recognize this, the general public doesn’t. That’s why many parishioners at the Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage were surprised when their pastor told them that the church is changing its policy of tolerating street alcoholics on its grounds.
While they knew homeless people, who are often intoxicated, were frequent visitors to the church, they were surprised to hear the extent of the church’s frustrations -- which include physical attacks on priests, people relieving themselves on church property and making a mess of restrooms, as well as dealing drugs and performing sex acts. Father Anthony Patalano told the congregation that today’s homeless are very different from those the church welcomed years ago, so he is imposing new rules to protect staff and parishioners.
“I think most of us are seeing a different kind of client than we’ve had in the past,” says Rosalee Nadeau, director of the AKEELA drug and alcohol treatment program in Anchorage.
“That person is someone who is a long term alcoholic, meaning ten years plus, who has suffered some brain damage as a result of the alcoholism and may very likely have a co-occurring mental health disorder,” says Nadeau.
“It is dissolving into the lowest possible piece of humanity. I’m going to have sex. I’m going to defecate wherever I feel,” said Nadeau, who says the key to helping this group is getting them into long term housing and into programs. She says some almost have to be retrained to behave like human beings.
“And that’s sad,” says Nadeau. “But that’s the way it is. As a percentage of the community, they’re not large. But as a percent of the community where they congregate, they’re overwhelming.”
In the end, she hopes that the problems at the Holy Family Cathedral will lead to more awareness about the need for programs that treat both mental illness and alcoholism at the same time.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d fix it,” said Nadeau. “Society has always been plagued by folks we find unacceptable. In this community, the offensive drunk downtown, bothering people, is what we’ve identified as unacceptable. We as a community have not decided what has to happen.”
Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan believes the Holy Family Cathedral took the right course of action.
“I’m sad about the fact that people who were welcomed with open arms to have a warm place, a place to use facilities, basically abused that privilege,” said Sullivan. “First and foremost, nobody should be scared to use a park, or a trail or a sidewalk, or a facility like the church, because they’re afraid of basically those lingering around there. So it’s a public safety concern.”
The mayor says police are working with the church to improve its security and curb drunken behavior next door at the Inlet Inn. Homeless advocates were concerned earlier this year that the mayor’s decision to cut a homeless coordinator’s position from the budget would lead to more problems. But Sullivan says the loss of the position wouldn’t of had an impact on difficulties at Holy Family Cathedral and at the Inlet Inn.
“The homeless coordinator wouldn’t be there at the church, essentially policing that area,” said Sullivan. “And our staff at Department of Health and Social Services and our police, they’re still working the same issues with our crews essentially. I don’t think you’re going to see a decline in the effort that the coordinator put forth.”
Even the homeless are troubled by what they’ve seen recently.
The Alaska Mental Health Consumer Web, next to the Carrs Safeway grocery store on Gambell Street, sees about a hundred people a day, who come inside to get warm -- and most important of all, use the one bathroom in the building.
“There’s always a waiting line. Sometimes three, four, five people deep,” said Tracy Barbee, director of the program. Barbee says many of the people use the sink to clean up -- and those waiting start banging on the door to make them hurry up.
Scott Andress, a jobless construction worker, says he believes there would be fewer problems with the homeless, if there were places for them to stay during the day. Andress, who lives in homeless camps and couch surfs, says when he’s out wandering in search of a bathroom or somewhere to rest, it puts him in contact with other alcoholics, so he winds up drinking and hanging out with them.
And while having access to restrooms is a perennial problem for the homeless, Andress says the number of street alcoholics who are mentally ill is alarming, even to him.
“You’re not going to talk your way out of a problem with them,” says Andress about what it’s like to deal with someone who is both mentally ill and intoxicated. “The best thing to do is get out of the situation, not even try to talk yourself out of a situation, because you can’t.”
The Alaska Mental Health Consumer Web hopes to get a new building someday. Visitors have to take a breathalyzer test before being admitted. The reward for sobriety is access to the program’s computers and other resources, as well as a sense of safety.
Barbee says chronic street alcoholics, especially the mentally ill, are more likely to be victims of assault than to be violent.
“We have an awful lot of people who come in here that are bruised and battered, getting jumped for a variety of reasons.”
The mayor believes there are enough social service agencies to help out – and that more daytime facilities are not what the homeless needs.
Most homeless advocates agree that the answer is more low income housing and programs like Karluk Manor, which houses some of the most hard core alcoholics.
Karluk Manor is coming up on its one-year anniversary in December -- and RurAL CAP, the agency that is piloting this project, has researchers looking at how much of a difference it’s made in helping its residents make progress towards sobriety and stay out of trouble.
The mayor says he’s interested in the possibility of expanding the program at a new location, but at this point, it’s just an idea.