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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Council Expands Open Container Ordinance

At Tuesday's City Council Meeting, the Council voted to extend the Open Container Ordinance to greenbelts and bike paths and also add the N Street Park to the regular open container ordinance. Eventually it is likely that all parks will require a permit in order for visitors to have alcoholic containers.

Undoubtedly many probably view this ordinance as a common sense approach to create a safe family atmosphere at the park. In fact, one individual asked for a complete ban on alcoholic beverages at all parks.

On the other hand, the ordinance disproportionately effects two population groups--one being the homeless and the other being students.

The impact on students is on convenience. During my years as a student, we would at times have BBQs in the park. Sometimes we had these BBQs impromptu, sometimes we would have them planned in advance. On a hot day after being couped up studying, sometimes it was just nice to get together in the evening at the park and have a few beers. Requiring a permit would take away from those kind of events and force that all such BBQs be planned in advance and permitted. It is a matter of convenience of course, but I think that the rule would take away from the ability of otherwise harmless and law abiding citizens to engage in recreational fun in the parks and that would be a shame.

The far bigger impact is on a population group that most in the city of Davis probably have little sympathy for--the homeless population.

Advocates of the homeless such as Richard Cipian came out on Tuesday night to speak against the extension of the open container ordinance.

As Cipian explains there are a number of reasons for the homeless to engage in alcoholic consumption:
"A majority in the homeless community drink alcohol for three reasons. The first reason is that many in the homeless community do not have jobs. The second reason is that the homeless do not have a motivation to get shelter because there are long established waiting for affordable housing along with the other barriers to housing that I do not have to mention. Just refer to the 2007 Homeless Yolo Homeless Summit document. The third reason is that mental illnesses and painful physical disorders run very high in the homeless community and like students and housed community members, we turn to alcohol consumption to reduce stress in our daily lives."
I understand the concerns of residents who complain of large numbers of people drinking in the parks. In fact, I spoke to residents about the N Street Park, many of them warned the homeless who had used that park that they should alternate parks in order to prevent one neighborhood from becoming tired of their presence. The homeless did not heed this advice and the result is now another park where they cannot drink.

I understand the concerns of parents who fear sending their kids to the parks when people are there drinking. There is no doubt in my mind that these are legitimate concerns.

On the other hand, I suspect that this solution is more of a band aid than a cure. The results of the early bans on alcoholic consumption were simply to shift the drinking population from one park to another. It is undoubtedly clear that this pattern will continue until the city bans all drinking at all parks without a permit.

I also understand that law enforcement prefers to be able to stop people from drinking than to respond to problems that result from people drinking.

But I wonder what the ultimate outcome will be of this ordinance. At the end of the day, the homeless that reside in Davis, many of whom will continue to drink. The only question is where.

And in some ways, banning public drinking might make the problem worse rather than better. For example, there is a good deal of evidence that a youth curfew does not reduce crime, it merely forces youth from public city centers where they are visible to neighborhood houses where they are not. The same will likely happen with homeless. In some ways, it may be easier to deal with a few problem people in a visible public area than a less visible area. It was even suggested that a specific drinking area be created where the police could fully monitor the activities.

Ruth Asmundson at the council meeting on Tuesday suggested that if people could purchase the alcohol, they could purchase a permit. Assistant Chief Steve Pierce agreed and stated that he had not heard of the price being prohibitive. Only Councilmember Heystek seemed sympathetic to this problem.

Cipian, however, as a homeless advocate sees the picture differently.
"A key issue brought up at last nights meeting was about the fact of homeless people not being able to afford permit's in order to consume alcohol beverages in Central Park. A person from the Davis Police Department suggested that if a homeless person has the money to buy a beer at a liquor store, they have the money to buy a permit to consume alcohol beverages in the park. This can be the furthest from the truth. Homeless people rarely have money for money beyond money for a drink of alcohol at a liquor store. If the former was the case in the Davis PD's eyes, why would homeless people panhandle? There is no need to panhandle if a homeless person has a abundance of income to pay for a permit fee."
Many Davisites will undoubtedly lack sympathy for this situation, implying paternalistically that homeless people need to stop drinking. While that is undoubtedly true, that simplistic approach overlooks a variety of factors that lead to drinking problems to begin with, the difficulty for people who have homes and resources to stop drinking, and the lack of social services available to aid the homeless.

I mentioned previously that this was a band aid to the problem rather than a solution. One reason for that is that drinking is not the problem, but a symptom of a much broader problem that leads a sizable number of people onto the streets. If the city, county, and community were serious about addressing this problem, they would be looking toward social services and housing solutions in addition to open container laws. While fully recognizing that the city and county governments lack such resources for many services, it is also true that creating and providing basic services to help the homeless including homes and treatment services are very low on the list of priorities. It is far easier to pass open container laws and hope that you shift or pass the problem elsewhere.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting