The Seriousness of Alcohol Abuse Among the Homeless

Downtown Eugene, Oregon has some form of entertainment for those from all walks of life. However, it does have some not so positive attributes as well.  It is also home to quite a few men, women and children who do not have the luxury of sleeping with a roof over their head at night. According to the National Law Center On Homelessness and Poverty, there are approximately 3,500 homeless individuals in Lane County. Also, with the recent Occupy Wall Street movement that swept through the streets of Eugene, that number has undoubtedly risen over the past few months. According to the Register Guard, the Occupy camp was like a “beacon for homeless people who cannot or will not go to traditional places for service.”

But why is the downtown area so heavily populated with homeless more so than any other area in Eugene? According to Greg Calef, a sergeant for the Eugene Police Department, homeless individuals generally congregate towards one area in town, and that happens to be the confines of downtown Eugene. He also mentioned that unfortunately, with a large body of homeless people also comes a plethora of problems like trespassing, urinating and defecating in public, sleeping on people’s private properties, as well as the abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Mike Hanna, an employee at Downtown Liquor in Eugene, said he has had plenty of experiences with homeless people—specifically with those who were apparently under the influence of alcohol at the time. “I have had plenty of run-ins with homeless people while working at this store,” said Hanna. “Someone gets all liquored up and sometimes pees or passes out in front of the store, or occasionally try to steal something.”

When you look deeper into the issue at hand, however, one common theme in these occurrences is the presence of alcohol abuse. According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, over 80 percent of homeless individuals who participated in a survey have experienced lifetime drug or alcohol problems. While it’s not a fair statement to deem an individual an alcoholic solely because of their current living situation, alcohol and drug abuse are generally very prevalent within any given homeless community.

In these instances, it’s important to understand where these homeless people suffering from alcoholism come from. According to Chuck Gerad, the Clinic Coordinator at White Bird Clinic, there is an important question we must ask ourselves before judging a homeless individual. “It’s important to know whether the individual started drinking because they became homeless, or if their drinking resulted in them becoming homeless,” said Gerad. It’s ignorant to look upon a homeless individual and automatically assume that the reason he/she is homeless is because he/she keeps spending money on alcohol.

This is a common misconception, as the seriousness of alcoholism is something that can be easily misinterpreted. In order to better understand what homeless people who struggle with alcoholism go through on a daily basis, it’s essential to comprehend the true nature of this disease.

According to the National Alcoholism Center, “Alcoholism is a biological dependence on alcohol. It usually develops through a protracted and unaddressed course of alcohol abuse over a period of time. Individuals afflicted with alcoholism commonly lose everything in their pursuit of their drinking, including their health, their money, their loved ones and their lives.”

Alcoholism is also a chemical imbalance in the brain that prevents individuals from thinking rationally, even when they aren’t under the influence of alcohol.

Alcoholism is a serious disease that cannot be cured without proper treatment. According to Alcohol Rehab Guide, “Alcoholics cannot just stop drinking because their body has become accustomed to the alcohol, and they experience withdrawal sensations when they stop drinking. Most alcoholics require professional, medically-supervised detoxification services when they choose to stop drinking.”

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The White Bird Clinic provides all sorts of services to the homeless people in Lane County.

With that being said, there are a couple of organizations and clinics in Eugene that dedicate themselves to helping the homeless community and those suffering from drugs and alcohol abuse alike. One of these clinics is called White Bird, and they enable people to gain control of their social, emotional and physical well being through direct service, dedication and community.

They have been helping the homeless community in Lane County of over 40 years by offering medical services, counseling, dental care, drug treatment, as well as providing shelter and food for whomever may need it. White Bird offers a wide range of services that it offers to homeless individuals and families. These include case management, primary medical care, group therapy, mental health counseling and evaluation, drug detoxification and outpatient drug treatment.

Similarly, the Buckley House is a substance abuse treatment facility that provides its patients with detoxification services. There are two main facilities within the Buckley House: the sobering station (essentially the drunk tank), as well as the actual detoxification facility. The sobering station provides its patients with a safe place to rest and let the alcohol leave their system. This is also the phase when nurses at the Buckley House are able to interact with the patients and get to know them on a personal level in hope that one day they’ll seek further treatment outside of the temporary relief that a sobering station brings.

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The Buckley House is a detoxification facility that helps rid alcohol from patient’s systems.

According to Caroll Crowe, the Clinical Program Manager at the Buckley House, the sobering station serves an average of 450 patients on a monthly basis, while the detoxification center ministers to around 80. The Buckley house, despite running low on funding for the sobering station, has recently added some additional services to the detoxification facility. They have instituted a certain number of case managers (certified counselors) who give assessments and referrals to current patients, as well as check up on previous patients between 30 to 90 days after their last visit.

And as of May 29, the facility will have 24-hour nursing available, as well the ability to take in patients from the local emergency rooms in order to keep the hospitals as accessible as possible in case of emergencies. The Federal Government makes this service possible, but it also applies to detoxification services all over the country.

But here lies the problem: there simply isn’t enough money to keep these institutions running at a full capacity.

“Most people need to be in a place where they can be taught basic human interactions,” said Crowe when referring to current or recovering alcoholics. “The need is out there; however, there are being cuts instead of stabilizing. Despite the lack of capital to adequately run this facility, the Buckley house still offers its patients a scaled price in order to accommodate those who don’t have the money to pay for treatment.

“We don’t want to turn anyone away because they can’t afford treatment,” said Crowe. “We want to help them.”

Even when all these services have been made available, why is there still a large amount of homeless individuals suffering from alcoholism? Scott Jaehnig, a substitute detoxification lead aid at the Buckley House, went through the detoxification process at the Buckley House himself, and now he’s working at the place where he took his first step towards sobriety.

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The Buckley House consists of a sobering station and a detoxification facility.

“I was a client at the Buckley house in 2007, and then got set up with ADAPT Crossroads Rehabilitation Center in Roseburg, Ore.”

However, the problem is that not every alcoholic is looking to become sober. Even when a judge in the court of law mandates treatment, it doesn’t mean that the individual will elect to stay clean.

As stated by Recovery First, “While some people claim that inpatient treatment is far better than jail for reducing crime, others assert that therapy is only effective when addicts choose it. Studies have shown that court-ordered patients can make great recoveries, but many people still vehemently oppose the use of addiction treatment for drug offenders.”

Officer Calef, who spends a lot of time around alcoholics working in the downtown Eugene area, also agrees with this.

“Mandating treatment doesn’t work,” said Calef. “It’s the people who don’t want help that are the problem.”

At the end of the day, it’s likely that alcohol abuse will remain prevalent within the homeless community for the unforeseeable future. All that can be done is to raise the awareness of these facilities and let people know that there are places that are offering help.

Sidebar # 1

Randy Ellis, a Eugene police officer West of campus, has been stationed out of Eugene since 1970. He has done more for the community than just what is asked of him as an officer.

“I have the time to do things that other officers don’t,” says Ellis. “I have the time to clean up graffiti, make sure the streets are clean and tear down posters.”

Ellis has been a police officer for over 40 years, so his reputation allows him to do other things on the side. Other officers would like to do the same, but it’s simply unrealistic because they just don’t have the time.

Ellis has also raised money for the past four years to spend on essentials for the homeless such as: gloves, socks, sleeping bags, sweatshirts, rain gear, sweatpants etc. On top of this, Ellis also hands out $5 gift cards to McDonalds to homeless individuals who might be need of a meal.

“Some of these people depend on this free stuff,” said when referring to people of the homeless community. “Granted some of that is their own damned fault, but they still need stuff and if you can [help them] but you don’t, then it’s wrong.”

Ellis is widely respected around the community of Eugene, and rightly so. It’s people like Ellis that truly try to make this world a better place.

Sidebar #2

Tiffany Cortex, a bartender at the Horsehead bar in downtown Eugene, has had her fair share of encounters will homeless people throughout her life.

“I’ve had to wake up a person sleeping on a table and ask him to leave one morning,” said Cortez. “He awoke and begged not to be arrested.”

Cortex has also witnessed individuals going through ashtrays looking for cigarette butts to smoke.

One thing Cortez has picked up on is that the High Gravity Malt Liquor is a very popular drink for some homeless individuals that spend their days walking the streets of downtown Eugene.

“One way we can help the alcohol problem in downtown Eugene is to stop selling the high gravity malt liquors,” said Cortez. As it turns out, the price for these drinks run around $2.50, which makes sense why it is such a popular drink among the heavy drinkers in the downtown area.

Similarly, Mike Hanns, an employee at Downtown Liquor, said that cheap alcohol is very popular and attainable where he works.

“Our best selling product is Potters Vodka because it’s the cheapest alternative,” said Hanns. “And it’s not even close.”

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