Thursday, August 9, 2007

Council to vote on alcohol-free zones near homeless shelters

In the shadow of a freeway overpass on East Lancaster Avenue, Leo Kobinski said banning alcohol near homeless shelters won't work.

To illustrate, he pulled out a ticket he got in mid-July for public intoxication. Like a lot of people who live in or near the homeless shelters, he can't afford to pay the fine, so another ticket is of little consequence.

'I've got 2,000-something dollars' worth of tickets,' he said.

The City Council will vote today on banning alcohol and open containers within 1,000 feet of homeless shelters. It's aimed at curbing public drinking near the shelters on East Lancaster Avenue, just south of downtown Fort Worth.

Fort Worth is the first city in the state to vote on the ban since the Legislature approved the measure this past session, according to a spokesman for state Sen. Rodney Ellis, the law's sponsor.

Council members, advocates for the homeless and shelter managers say the alcohol prohibition can work only as part of a wide-ranging plan to address homelessness, alcoholism, mental illness and other problems that can be found along Lancaster Avenue.

'I think it's an important first step,' Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks said.

Fort Worth's three main shelters are clustered along Lancaster, and the number of people seeking shelter -- both short-term and long-term -- is growing.

The city is looking for larger solutions, including more transitional housing, where residents can have access to social services while they try to get on their feet.

At the same time, owners of surrounding businesses are becoming frustrated by what they say is a constant parade of people drinking -- sometimes urinating and panhandling -- in the homeless district.

'We have customers that really don't want to come to this area,' said Glen Lea, manager of Marshall Grain Co. on Lancaster near Riverside Drive. 'They stop at Riverside and people are just staring at them. Either that, or they're just staggering out in the street banging on windows, asking for money.'

Suzette Watkins, who owns a kennel near Lancaster and Riverside, said the city needs to impose consequences on people who flout the law.

Right now, she said, 'They get off scot-free.'

Don Shisler, president of the Union Gospel Mission, said the alcohol ban might help remove temptation from children and from people who are trying to quit drinking.

'It would be helpful if that type of influence weren't available to the people we're working with or ministering to,' he said.

But homeless people often walk for miles, so 1,000 feet won't be much of an impediment to those who want to keep drinking, he said.

Other cities have tried similar bans. Seattle prohibits the sale of several brands of fortified wine and malt liquor in its downtown area. Washington, D.C., restricts the sale of single-serving containers in one ward.

But those rules have had little effect, said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

'Prohibiting the sale of alcohol is not going to attack the root cause of substance abuse among homeless people,' he said. 'Detox and residential treatment programs are the way to go.'

Hicks sees the 1,000-foot limit as part of a larger campaign. She and other community activists have been fighting alcohol sales permits for stores along Lancaster and other areas of southeast Fort Worth.

They recently got the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to deny a license to a convenience store at Riverside and Lancaster, which is halfway between two of the major shelters.

'I'm not trying to make everyone alcohol-free. I'm trying to cut down on how many [stores selling alcohol] there are,' she said.

The manager of a convenience store on Lancaster Avenue, who declined to give his name, said the city isn't addressing the right crowd.

'Most of our customers are not shelter people; they're the neighborhood people,' he said.

Beneath the overpass on Lancaster, Kobinski and a knot of other men acknowledged that alcohol is a serious problem on the street. But most of them have already been ticketed for minor offenses such as trespassing and jaywalking and still haven't been able to quit.


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