(From For the Record, March 23, 1998): Story incorrect: Terry Lawhead is operations director for the Downtown Spokane Partnership. Lawhead’s title was unclear and the group’s name was incorrect in a Sunday story.
Sunny Dives Backwards gulps down a malt beer, fortifying himself for a frigid night under an East Spokane loading dock.
Booze is killing him. His blood pressure is 200 over 140. At 40, he looks like a weathered old man.
But he can’t give it up. He’s spent dozens of nights in detox wards and flunked six treatment programs.
“It won’t do me no good,” he said. “I’m not ready to stop. I probably won’t stop until I drink myself to death.”
The government labels people like him “chronic public inebriants.” Their numbers have nearly doubled in Spokane since last year.
While the numbers swell, fueled by cuts in federal disability spending, new efforts are being made to hold hard-core alcoholics accountable.
State liquor officers are cracking down on public drinking and businesses that sell to intoxicated buyers. Security guards are sweeping people out of doorways and into shelters. A business improvement group is cajoling downtown stores to stop selling high-octane booze.
And shelters themselves, squeezed by growing needs and stagnant budgets, no longer routinely offer chronic drunks costly, long-term treatment.
During his frequent visits to Spokane’s detox center at 165 S. Howard, Dives Backwards now gets just enough to keep him alive: a vinyl-wrapped bunk, a quick medical checkup, a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a wave goodbye.
If he insisted, he could crash in a detox ward, withdrawing for five days, wracked by painful shakes, and begin the process to recovery.
But Dives Backwards said he lacks such resolve. After being picked up by the detox center van and spending a night in the sleep-it-off ward - called the “sobering unit” - he returns to the streets. He did it dozens of times last year.
“If somebody wants to drink themselves to death, there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Roger Silfvast, director of Spokane Care Services, the nonprofit group that runs the detox center. “We’ll help the guy that wants to help himself.”
In cutting back detox services, Spokane is following the trail of centers in Seattle and Portland.
Previous detox programs here, which required three-day dry-out sessions for everyone, were a financial bust and largely ineffective. In 1995, Spokane County officials rescued the failing center from a $250,000 debt.
The sobering unit was installed in 1996. A night there costs taxpayers $23. Stints in the 14-bed detox ward, considered the first step in treatment, cost more than four times that much.
Funneling more people into the sobering unit frees money for those who really want help, said county social services administrator Kasey Kramer. The county spends $715,000 a year on detox services.
“To a degree, it means giving up on some people,” said Kramer. “It’s a difficult decision to make.”
Others catering to the street population have followed suit.
Union Gospel Mission now demands that men seeking alcohol treatment prove they want it - staying dry 30 days and attending weekly chapel and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“That seems to be the mood of our country, to do something different than just handing money out, throwing money at issues,” said Union Gospel’s Dave Wall. “I’d say we are trying to practice more tough love.”
To some, that means cutting off the source.
Seattle, using a tactic employed in Spokane and Portland, recently asked downtown stores to stop selling cheap, high-alcohol beer and wine.
Critics say the campaign sounds good politically, but doesn’t address the problem of treating alcoholism.
“Without dollars, it does nothing but push the problem under the rug,” said John Fox, director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, an advocate group for the homeless.
But a similar voluntary ban in Spokane, started three years ago, has reduced the number of back-alley drunks, said Mike Waldron, enforcement officer for the state Liquor Control Board.
The ban was put to a test when the downtown Rite Aid drug store recently began selling high-alcohol booze at discount prices. After pressure from concerned business groups, the store pulled the products.
For the past two years, Downtown Spokane Association security guards have patrolled the area favored by the street alcoholics: West Riverside and Sprague, near a row of bars and liquor stores.
Kamin Sandford, a hairdresser at A Cut Above, a West Riverside salon, said street people urinating on car tires, panhandling or passing out in doorways drives away customers.
But the security guards - and pickups by detox van drivers - have helped, she said.
“We feel like we’re making some headway,” agreed Terry Lawhead, a Downtown Spokane Association employee who coordinates security.
Despite the efforts, police say they are finding more bottles littering alleys and more “very drunk folks” staggering around downtown, particularly near STA Plaza.
Despite a mild winter, about 60 men stayed nightly at Spokane’s House of Charity, an increase of at least 10 from last year’s deadly cold season.
Shelter director Ed McCarron attributes rising numbers in part to elimination of alcoholism as an approved disability. Many men lost monthly checks and became homeless, he said.
Detox center statistics reflect the trend. The number of people hauled there more than three times a month has nearly doubled: from 150 in 1996 to 275 last year.
At least a dozen spent 75 nights in the sobering unit last year; at least two spent more than 100.
While the need rose, the number of people going through the detox ward fell. Silfvast admits some chronic alcoholics may have fallen through the cracks, but a tight budget limits his options.
“If we had 50 detox beds, they’d be filled,” he said.
The numbers are rising because societal problems are getting worse, he said.
Drugs play a role. At least one-third admitted to the center are drug-addicted, and another third have multiple addictions. Heroin is the most popular drug.
Critics of sobering units say they “enable” alcoholics to keep on drinking.
“If you want to save money, it’s a great way to save money,” said Joe Martin, a social worker at the low-income Pike Street Health Clinic in Seattle. “But it’s not a great way of dealing with addiction.”
A lack of treatment beds inflames the problem, providers say.
There are waiting lists for the 235 beds in Spokane County treatment clinics, forcing people just out of detox back to the streets. And there are just 70 slots statewide for subsidized long-term housing for recovering alcoholics.
Kramer, the county official, plans to ask the state to pay for more treatment and housing. “That’s a huge missing piece,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t know that.”
Regardless of funding or politics, most of the burden to be clean and sober rests on the individual.
Dan Bissinger, who oversees the sobering unit, used to agonize at night: Have I done enough to encourage rehabilitation?
A recovering alcoholic himself, five years sober, Bissinger developed a professional shell.
“It doesn’t bother me now,” said Bissinger, a serious 45-year-old with a ponytail. “If you want to help yourself, you will.
“Maybe tomorrow that will be the day he says I want to quit, I want to go to treatment. Why not give him the chance to make it to tomorrow?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: AN OUNCE OF REFORM… Despite a mild winter, about 60 men stayed nightly at Spokane’s House of Charity, an increase of at least 10 from last year’s deadly cold season. The number of people hauled to the detox center more than three times a month has nearly doubled: from 150 in 1996 to 275 last year. House of Charity director Ed McCarron attributes rising numbers in part to elimination of alcoholism as an approved disability. Many men lost monthly checks and became homeless, he said.