It’s 1:45 am on St. Patrick’s Day, and Portland police are delivering a steady stream of humanity into Portland’s drunk tank. It’s not the official name, and it’s certainly not a nice name, but it is what it is.
Devon, who weighs about 240 pounds, was picked up outside Couture Ultra Lounge, an Old Town club. He’s instantly on all fours. He emits a foul-smelling red vomit, complete with chunks of what may have been Mexican food. (All the floors in the sobering station slope to a drain for a reason.)
A “sobering technician” handles the mess with an industrial mop. Devon—a first-time guest—passes out on the floor. He’s next to one of the regulars, a guy named Teddy who is supine in slumber, his right hand down the front of his pants.
“Teddy, ease off your balls, man!” another regular calls to him. Teddy shifts his hand to his backside.
The 6,806 admissions to the sobering station last year—many are repeat clients—represent the extreme end of Oregon’s dizzyingly complicated relationship with alcohol. (Because of medical privacy concerns, WW has changed the names of sobering station clients for this story.)
Government spends money to care for Oregon’s alcoholics, but it also sells them the booze and taxes it—and profits immensely.
“We have a schizophrenic relationship with the product,” says Paul Romain, the formidable lobbyist for the Oregon Beer & Wine Distributors Association.
And while the Central City Concern Sobering Station, located at 51 NE Grand Ave., often hosts men and women who have blood alcohol contents the average person rarely achieves, it is still accurate to say that as a whole, Oregon is a drunken state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Oregon’s 2010 rate of alcohol-induced deaths was nearly double the national average. Almost 60 percent of those seeking treatment for addiction in Oregon are alcoholics; nationally, it’s just over 40 percent.
In Portland, arrests for drinking in public have gone up almost twofold since 2005. During that time, the population growth has been only 5.7 percent.
“We are one of the most intoxicated or loaded states per capita,” says Sarah Goforth, Central City Concern’s senior director of integrated behavioral health care, whose responsibilities include the sobering station.
Last year, the state earned $194.1 million in profits from state-controlled alcohol sales, taxes on wine and beer, and liquor licenses. It’s the state’s third-largest discretionary revenue stream, behind income taxes and the lottery.
“We’re addicted to liquor money like we’re addicted to gambling,” Romain says.
To be sure, a steady stream of booze money helped Oregon limp along during the last recession. And the vast majority of Oregonians enjoy happy hour without unhappy results. But if you spend time with drunks, or even heavy drinkers, it’s hard not to conclude that Portland and Oregon’s relationship with alcohol is a paradox.
Nowhere is this conflict better illustrated than in Old Town, a mile from the sobering station, due west across the Burnside Bridge. There sits a swath of real estate that has become a genuine nightlife destination—and a booze-addled street festival that requires maximum police attention. This month, the Oregon Legislature is considering three bills that would corral behavior in the Northwest Portland district. In addition, the city is experimenting with a solution of its own, and Multnomah County is trying to curb binge and underage drinking there.
As honorary Oregonian Homer Simpson most aptly said: “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
It’s half past midnight, and Portland Officer Chad Phifer brings Adam to the sobering station in handcuffs. As he enters, Adam sees a sign reading, “Central City Concern Sobering Station,” and the serious faces of three intake workers. He pauses a beat and says, “Sobering station...yes, it is.”
He’s 26 and a hipster personified, in a plaid shirt and mustache that’s artfully curled at the corners. Admits to the sobering station can broadly be divided into two camps. First are the repeat clients—men (they’re mostly men) who are chronic and, in some cases, late-stage alcoholics unable to function without the juice. CHIERS, the transport van the nonprofit runs to collect the intoxicated from the streets, has a 40-page, double-sided list of repeat clients. In 2012, one man was responsible for 73 admissions (at a cost of nearly $14,000).
Then there are the newbies, men and women who simply had way, way too much fun—often in Old Town.
As with all new arrivals, a staff member asks Adam what he was drinking. In this case, it was Jameson. Enough Irish whiskey that Officer Phifer found him face down on the sidewalk in Old Town. The station’s emergency medical technicians take Adam’s blood pressure and pulse. Next, they clear out his pockets, stashing a smartphone, wallet, a pack of Black & Mild cigars and a comb for his ’stache in a plastic bag for safekeeping.
He’s led into one of three communal holding rooms, which are equipped with a metal table, toilet, sink and nothing else. Five staffers watch Adam and the others from an office lined with windows facing the holding rooms. There’s an opening at the bottom of the windows, through which they can hand their charges water, granola bars and soup.
Adam isn’t long for the communal room. He’s uncooperative, refusing to back away from the window. He’s going to isolation.
The green cell, the color of an Andes mint, is about 4 feet by 10 feet. There’s nothing but a toilet. “You fucking faggots!” Adam shouts at the commode. He screams for the next two hours, kicking the room’s locked door so hard the tempered glass window visibly flexes. The lack of a pillow—which, along with blankets, isn’t offered for sanitary reasons—becomes an urgent matter of civil rights to Adam, who can’t lift his liquor-addled head off the concrete floor. “I want a fucking pillow!” he bellows again and again.The drunks at the sobering station are not charged with crimes. Rather, they can be held up to 48 hours under the state’s civil commitment law—meaning they’re a danger to themselves or others. Most people stay about four to eight hours, however, before staff members allow them to leave.
The chronics know the drill. Sleep. Wake up. Eat a cup of vegetable beef soup. Wait for release.
It’s the binge drinkers who cause the most problems.
“People get all like, ‘Am I in Afghanistan? You can’t do this to me!’” sobering technician Matthew Knowlton says. “People just spew the worst hate. I’ve been told by one guy he wants to lick my tits and rape my daughter.”
The isolation rooms are almost always full, particularly on big party nights: New Year’s Eve, Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween. And the stories are legion.
Knowlton recalls a time when an elderly man came up behind a passed-out partier and began rubbing his penis on the unconscious man’s forehead. Staff quickly stopped the man, and didn’t tell the victim what had happened.
“I figured, would he really want to know?” Knowlton says.
The sobering station is the only real choice for Portland’s publicly inebriated, other than hospital or jail. Most arrive in the back of a cop car or are collected by Central City Concern’s CHIERS van.
The van’s $432,000 annual budget comes from the Portland Police Bureau. The sobering station’s $1.3 million budget is split between Portland (44 percent) and Multnomah County (48 percent), with other counties contributing the rest through a $127-per-drunk per-night fee. Clients themselves do not pay for their stay.
The station has been part of a perennial battle between the city and county, with each side threatening to pull funding.
In 2007, the county said it would cut $1 million from the station. At the time, then-county Chairman (and now State Treasurer) Ted Wheeler said housing the drunk was a police service and the city should pay. Ultimately, the county capitulated and continued chipping in.
This year, it’s the city threatening to cut off the money. The Police Bureau budget submitted to Mayor Charlie Hales includes no funding for the sobering station. Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says it’s a county problem.
“We’re looking at 27 actual police officers being laid off,” Simpson tells WW. “We can’t pay for something that is someone else’s responsibility.”
A spokesman for Hales’ office says all cuts are still on the table.
On Jan. 20, Rebecca Bray, a 20-year-old from Gresham, was killed by a drunken driver at 2:30 am. Bray was standing on the edge of Old Town, at Northwest 5th Avenue and Everett Street, with a friend waiting for a ride when prosecutors say Brent A. Warstler, 42, drove a pickup truck through a red light, hit a taxi and smashed into Bray and her friend, who sustained critical injuries. Warstler’s blood alcohol content was .20—more than double the legal limit of .08, police say. It’s not clear where Warstler was drinking that Saturday night, the district attorney’s office says.
Old Town has transformed in the past several years into Portland’s premier nightclub scene. As a result, it’s also become the city’s top spot for binge drinking, county officials say.
Many of Central City Concern’s drug- and alcohol-free housing units are located in the middle of this nightlife. It puts Portland’s party-hard crowds directly in the face of those who struggle to stay sober.
“Old Town, which used to be Scary Town, is now Party Town,” Goforth says. “There’s alcohol- and drug-abuse housing above, and clubs below. It’s a little surreal.”
Marvis Cotton has lived on the sixth floor of the Estate Hotel, located at Old Town’s epicenter, Northwest 3rd Avenue and Couch Street, for 3½ years. He’s 58 and wears a “one day at a time” tag on the zipper of his down coat. He says seeing the drunks every weekend does him good.
“I look at them and say, ‘I don’t want to be that way,’” Cotton says. “It’s a constant reminder of what not to do.”
Public officials are trying a number of measures to address the excesses of alcohol in Old Town.
Last year, the Multnomah County Department of Human Services won a $200,000 state grant to target binge and heavy drinking among 18-to-25-year-olds. A work group is studying ways to cut back on overserving alcohol and underage drinking; among the tactics being considered are purchasing signs to post in Old Town to promote responsible drinking, and buying bars ID scanners to better weed out fakes.
More significant, the Portland City Council voted unanimously last December to exclude cars from a six-block area in Old Town from 10 pm to 3 am on weekends for 90 days as a way to reduce fights, ease crowd control and improve traffic safety. (Bray was killed just outside this area).
“We really like it,” says Officer Ariana Ridgely, who works weekend nights from the small cop outpost set up on Northwest 3rd Avenue and Couch Street. “There’s been a lot less fighting and assaults.”
The three-month trial ended April 1, but cops and many of the Old Town bars hope the car ban will return when the weather becomes warmer and even more partiers flood the streets. Chad Stover, Mayor Hales’ law enforcement policy assistant, says his office is working with police, neighbors and businesses to assess the district’s success.
In Salem, three bills that could have a big impact in Old Town are still in committees.
Few expect success for an attempt to raise the beer tax. Oregon has the fourth-lowest beer tax in the nation, and hasn’t raised the tax since the 1970s. Proponents say the bill would stem problem drinking and raise more funds for treatment. “There’s a strong relationship between price and underage and heavy drinking,” says Devarshi Bajpai, addiction services manager for Multnomah County Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland) says the tax hike lacks the votes this session. He is among those against it. “I’ve been consistently concerned about the impact of a malt-beverage tax increase on our craft-beverage industry.”
Also left in potential limbo is House Bill 2008—legislation that even House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) may not be able to push through.
Kotek has been trying since 2007 to deal with problem bars. Among the provisions in HB 2008 is to give law enforcement the power to close down liquor-licensed establishments for 72 hours if it feels the businesses are an immediate threat to public safety.
Shootings occur in Old Town about once a year, occasionally with fatal results. If HB 2008 were to pass, and a gang shooting occurred outside of a bar—as it did when 19-year-old Andre Dupree Payton was killed in 2010 at Northwest 2nd Avenue and Couch Street—cops could close the nearby venue to thwart possible retaliatory shootings.
Jared Mason-Gere, Kotek’s spokesman, says that while the Oregon Liquor Control Commission already has the authority to close problem establishments, police could do more. “Cities and law enforcement have asked for this authority because they’re able to be more responsive than the OLCC,” he tells WW.
But that’s a big reason why the influential Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association hates this bill. Lobby vice president Bill Perry says he could see closing down bars after major crimes, but Kotek’s bill—which also includes provisions for shutting down bars with too many noise complaints—steps over the line and gives law enforcement and cities unprecedented levels of latitude.
“It gives a police officer the right to close down an establishment with no third-party oversight,” Perry says. “It lets them close a place on a reasonable belief that something happened. There’s no due process.”
The bill with the best shot of passing is one that proponents say would keep the public intoxication of both the weekend warriors in Old Town and the winos on the street in check.
Sen. Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland) and Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie) are championing House Bill 2702, which would give the OLCC clear authority to institute what are called “alcohol impact areas.” “While there is no clear path for HB 2702, advocates are working hard to address industry concerns,” Dingfelder says. “This is an uphill battle, but not impossible. There have already been several amendments proposed to this bill, and I am encouraged that we are on the path to compromise.”
Old Town has one of the state’s highest concentrations of alcohol outlets—both bars and stores that sell beer and wine, and the bill’s supporters say alcohol impact areas—zones where high-octane malt liquors and fortified wines would be removed from shelves—would help.
A Multnomah County study found that on a per-capita basis, the county outpaces the rest of the state for binge and heavy drinking (21.8 percent of men binge drink here, compared to 19.7 percent statewide; 14 percent of women binge drink here, compared to just 8.7 percent who report the habit statewide).
Portland spent more than three years trying to start such a zone in Old Town. The OLCC told city leaders it had the authority to create an alcohol impact area. But after a lengthy bureaucratic back and forth, the OLCC reversed course and said it actually didn’t have the legal right to ban particular boozes. HB 2702 would clarify the law to give the OLCC the authority to do just that.
Business lobbyists oppose the bill and say the state shouldn’t be in the business of regulating what is sold in certain locations. Alcohol impact areas would unfairly target the poor and simply push problem drinking outside impact-area boundaries, they say.
“The main thing is that they don’t work,” says Romain, the beer and wine lobbyist. “They move problems from one place to another.”
The city’s drunk tank was originally named after David Philip Hooper. A track star at Franklin High School and Linfield College in the 1930s, he later became well-known in Old Town.
He was arrested 93 times for panhandling and public intoxication. It was in jail that he died, on March 6, 1971. His death galvanized city leaders to create a safe space, supervised by medically trained staff, where drunks could sober up. It opened in October that same year.
Today, Central City Concern’s medical detox program—which is separate from the sobering station and serves about 2,000 people a year—is named for Hooper. His name is gone from the drunk tank.
The good news is, business is declining for the sobering station. Admissions have dropped more than 60 percent from a peak of more than 19,000 in 1992.
Why there has been such a drop—at a time when broader alcohol-addiction statistics are on the rise—isn’t clear.
Part of the explanation is that Portland’s cops changed their policy in 2009, when they began transporting some drunks who commit low-level offenses, like offensive littering or drinking in public, to jail instead of the sobering station. The department already cut $100,856 from the CHIERS budget last year, and the van’s hours of operation were cut back to 10 hours a day from 16 hours, resulting in the transport of fewer clients.
Central City Concern’s Goforth, a slender woman in her early-50s who counts herself as 27 years sober, also has a few theories. The first is that her own nonprofit has upped its drug- and alcohol-free housing units from about 50 units 30 years ago to about 900 today. Some of the drunks that were on the streets are now in housing, receiving regular exposure to group support.
The others? “A lot of the severe alcoholics are dead now,” she says.
The sobering station isn’t the place where most drunks find a 12-step program. Rather, staff makes sure to let out the late-stage drunks in time to get more alcohol before they start having seizures.
It’s palliative care, Goforth explains.
“Sobering was always about chronic folks, it was never about the people partying at bars,” Goforth says. “But that is a lot of who we pick up on the weekend.”