Public drinking strains county, jury finds

David Briggs
The Helen Vine Recovery Center, in San Rafael, houses 26 beds, 4 of which are set aside for chronic inebriates. A recent Grand Jury report found that bringing public inebriates to sobering centers instead of jails or emergency rooms can save law enforcement and hospitals money as well as better address the larger societal problem.

When asked about a homeless man who apparently drank so much that he passed out in the park on Saturday, some residents and workers in downtown Bolinas have to think deeply about who exactly that could have been.

There are a number of homeless people in the area, many who have become familiar fixtures and others who are just passing through, and a number of them like to drink or do other drugs, according to people who live there but asked not to be identified.

But those who do know Stephen Streichan say he is a nice enough guy; he just has a drinking problem.

Mr. Streichan was arrested Saturday for disorderly conduct—being drunk in public—and after he sobered up in the county jail in San Rafael he was released without charges, according to Marin County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Doug Pittman.

County officials and community members who deal with people like Mr. Streichan deal with people like him a lot. The arresting charge for being drunk in public is used so often that people arrested for drinking are simply called “647(f)s,” after the section of the California Penal Code they violated.

The people arrested are frequently repeat offenders, chronic inebriates, and they end up spending at least four to six hours in jail, in an emergency department bed or, in a smaller number of cases, a sobering facility off of Smith Ranch Road in northern San Rafael called the Helen Vine Recovery Center.

Alcohol abuse is a complex social ill—touching on issues of mental health, unemployment, homelessness and criminal justice—but financing more beds for inebriated people to sober up in treatment facilities would generate cost savings for the county’s hospitals and law enforcement agencies, according to the findings of a report issued Thursday by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury.

“The Grand Jury believes that establishing a sobering center for Marin County can provide a more humane alternative to jail or to a hospital emergency room for public inebriates,” the report said. “A sobering center can generate cost savings and improved efficiency for both county law enforcement agencies as well as for local hospital [emergency departments], and it can also assist other County organizations in addressing the much larger societal challenge of public inebriation.”

The Sheriff’s Office, which patrols towns in unincorporated Marin, reports dropping off inebriated people at the county jail 123 times and 13 times at Helen Vine in 2011, according to statistics quoted in the Grand Jury’s report.

The report argues that the appropriate place for most publicly intoxicated people is not jail or hospitals, and recommends establishing a standalone center and expanding the services provided by Buckelew Programs at Helen Vine.

Patients usually stay at the short-term abuse-treatment center for three to five days, but they can stay as little as four hours and up to 30 days.

“As we all know, three to five days is not long enough for people who have been drinking and using for many, many years, so we help assist them into getting into long-term treatment, housing, whatever their goal is—we try to help them make that goal more realistic,” said Teresa Bowman, program director at the Vine.

The center’s 26 beds include four set aside for chronic inebriates. Residents sleep dormitory-style and share a kitchen and a common area with a television. Every day they begin their morning with an unsupervised group meeting, where they set goals for the day. The rest of the day includes recovery sessions, meetings with counselors and time for spiritual practice or study.

Ms. Bowman, a longtime drug-abuse counselor, said the center saw 1,440 clients overall last year, 840 of whom sought treatment again after a stint in the center.

She said that for chronic drinkers the most commonly requested service is not treatment but housing, but officials hope that by establishing a relationship and providing information about treatment they are more likely to make a

“I don’t know if we’d ever hold the impression that people will never change. We hold the wellness and recovery perspective that people always can change and they do,” said Steve Eckert, Buckelew’s executive director. “They may not heal to be the highest functioning members of society, but they improve to the next level up.”

Marin General Hospital recently donated $100,000 to support dedicated beds for chronic drinkers. The hospital said that federal law requires them to take in drunk people, including those without medical insurance, which diminishes their capacity to serve other patients who are more acutely injured.

“There are a limited number of options for city officials when there are chronic inebriates in the streets assuming you don’t just want to leave them there,” said Jon Friedenberg, the Marin Healthcare District’s chief fund and business development officer who runs the hospital’s foundation. “Taking them to the hospital is an unbelievably expensive way to try and address the issue. We’re talking about people who don’t have a medical condition that requires them to be in the hospital.”

While Marin hospitals—which deal with an average four to five chronic inebriates everyday, according to the Grand Jury—said a sobering center would lower their costs, Sheriff Robert Doyle said he did not agree with the report’s conclusion that law enforcement costs would be lowered by a sobering center.

“Somehow they think that there will be savings that the city can shift to this center because (of the reduced cost of) booking public inebriates,” he said. “They’re wrong.”

“A high number of them are repeat offenders,” Mr. Doyle explained. “But that’s a small number compared with the number that we book.”

Mr. Doyle estimated that one in eight or nine bookings by the department deal with public intoxication, and the sobering center would not create a significant reduction in workload.

On Wednesday afternoon, at around noon, Steve Conway sat in Bolinas Community Park drinking a tall can of beer from a paper bag. Mr. Conway, who is homeless, said that although Bolinas is expensive and panhandling is not as effective here as in places like San Rafael, he is attracted to the community in part because of the permissive attitude and because he likes surfing.

“It’s more expensive up here, but it’s worth it. It’s very tranquil, very peaceful and spiritual,” Mr. Conway said, noting that you can drink openly without getting in trouble. “This is mellow. This is why I’m out here.”

Mr. Conway supports the idea of a sobering center because “that’s the smartest solution. Let them sleep it off.”

Mr. Streichan, the man who was arrested near the park Saturday, has no permanent address and could not be

“He’s harmless just like any other pickled person—hard to not be harmless when you’re not pickled,” said park regular Matt Lundy. “I see him sober in the morning until he becomes pickled, then he’s not the same person anymore.”

To read the Grand Jury report visit and click on “Civil Grand Jury” under Departments.