Forest Grove wrestles with drinking in public

From The Oregonian, October 2, 2008

This seems to be three or four stories written all on the same day and published over a duration in the Washington County Edition in 2008.

As she approached the abandoned bag of clothes, Dixie Aeschliman thought she might need a mask: “The stink! Oh my God.”

Transient Doug Bacon enjoys a beer in Rogers Park, a popular, shady place for homeless people and their friends to drink on summer afternoons.

Transient Doug Bacon enjoys a beer in Rogers Park, a popular, shady place for homeless people and their friends to drink on summer afternoons.

Once a week, Aeschliman and her husband, Bud, go into the alleyway that runs past their apartment complex to clean up the garbage left by homeless people and public drinkers.

“Half the time you can’t pick it up ’cause it’s got their feces in it,” Bud Aeschliman said.

The alleyway connects Safeway on Pacific Avenue with Bard Park two blocks north — both hot spots for the drinking crowd.

As manager of the apartment complex, which serves people with disabilities, Dixie is concerned for her tenants. They are intimidated when they head to the store and “here the guys are — drinking, urinating.”

“One time, this guy was just passed out across the sidewalk,” Dixie Aeschliman said. A wheelchair-bound tenant, headed to Safeway, couldn’t get past until a bystander pulled the intoxicated man onto the grass.

Such episodes prompted Aeschliman in August to ask the City Council to ban public drinking. Forest Grove and Sherwood are the only sizable cities in Washington County that do not do so.

Police Chief Kerry Aleshire drafted an ordinance that would stop public drinking, except for liquor-licensed restaurants or events, and plans to take it to the council on Monday, Oct. 13.

Councilors have inquired about the possibility of such a ban since the 1990s, said Capt. Aaron Ashbaugh, a 22-year veteran of the Forest Grove Police Department. Residents, however, wanted the option of having a beer while watching a softball game or barbecuing in Lincoln Park.

But complaints about problem drinkers increased dramatically this summer, he said.

Aeschliman bears that out. “I’ve been here 14 years,” she said. “We’ve never had this problem until this year.”

The new law would be an extra tool for removing problem drinkers from the public eye. But it skips over a larger, related issue, Aleshire said: “It always comes back to the homeless population when we talk about banning drinking in public.”

Like the complaints, the homeless population has increased, police say, along with a perception that homeless people are drawn to Forest Grove by the combination of small-town generosity and an efficient public transportation system.

“We’re at the end of the TriMet line,” said Officer Matt Smith, who has gotten to know some of the newcomers. They tell him they heard there was free food out here, he said.

Once they learn about the ability to drink in public, many stay, Ashbaugh said, even though “we don’t have the infrastructure to really help the homeless.” Permanent shelters and rehabilitation programs are mostly in Hillsboro or Portland.

Russ Dondero, a former Pacific University professor and homeless advocate, doubts that homeless alcoholics are flocking specifically to Forest Grove for its services. He wants numbers to back that claim.

Numbers aren’t always clear, though. While “detox holds” by Forest Grove police have increased overall during the past five years, for example, they dropped from 28 in 2006 to 17 in 2007. They are back up this year, with 19 so far.

“Until you have a baseline based upon hard data, this anecdotal information is meaningless,” said Dondero, who worries such reports are simply “fanning the flames of hysteria about the homeless.”

Numbers aside, Rod Fuiten, a longtime resident and member of the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission, said the sight of people hanging out, drinking, in alleys or other corners of town, “makes me feel less good about where I’m living.”

“It’s a psychological thing, a sign of decay,” he said. “It’s not the town I grew up in.”

Fuiten, 59, acknowledges that the Forest Grove of his youth was a small, semi-agricultural community of 5,000. Now 20,000 strong, the city plays up its proximity to Portland in brochures and on its Web site, hoping to draw tourists, industry and higher income residents.

But that proximity may come with a price — and the Aeschlimans may be paying it every week.

The homeless: Bonds sustain regulars among those who drink

In the shade of the Safeway recycling center, a few feet from the “No Loitering” signs, Aaron Alleman unzips a small, dirty canvas bag.

Nose-wrinkling passers-by on their way in to buy groceries might assume it holds drugs or other ill-gotten goods.

After all, Alleman, 55, is part of Forest Grove’s most visible homeless group — 20 to 30 regulars, mainly single adults, most of whom, police say, abuse alcohol or drugs, or have a criminal record. The group breaks down into subgroups that meet regularly at Safeway, Bard Park, Rogers Park or the Forest Grove Tobacco Shop.

Alleman — a big-bellied, bearded man in a black cap, “Mexico” T-shirt and jeans — lifts the canvas bag out of his bicycle’s rear basket and unzips it. Ken Thompson Jr., 26, comes close to watch while his dog, Stoner, barks excitedly.

And there they are: eight large, pincer-waving crawdads, fresh from the Tualatin River. Alleman regularly bicycles down Oregon 47 to check his crawdad traps off Springhill Road, a 20-mile round-trip from Safeway.

“He makes the best spaghetti-crawdad thingy ever,” Thompson Jr. proclaims, establishing that Alleman is not only a good trapper and cook, but he’s also willing to share.

Ken Thompson Sr. sits with his dog, Brutus, at the Safeway recycling center in Forest Grove. Thompson, who says he and his family are homeless, speculated that if Forest Grove enacts a ban on public drinking, “I’d just quit drinking.”

Ken Thompson Sr. at the Safeway recycling center in Forest Grove. Thompson, who says he and his family are homeless, speculated that if Forest Grove enacts a ban on public drinking, 'I'd just quit drinking.'

Ken Thompson Sr. at the Safeway recycling center in Forest Grove. Thompson, who says he and his family are homeless, speculated that if Forest Grove enacts a ban on public drinking, 'I'd just quit drinking.'

His comrades are actually a mix of people who are homeless or used to be until assistance came through — a Social Security check or a housing voucher.

Those who get homes often share the spaces with their homeless friends. They also drink together — and are the target of Forest Grove’s proposed ban on public drinking.

It’s important to note that many of the local homeless do not drink, and many look like — and may have been — successful middle-class homeowners. In the current economic climate, this group may be growing.

Alice Beggs, liaison for homeless students in the Forest Grove School District, said their number is much higher so far this year — 28 — than at the same time last year — 16. “It’s a drastic situation,” she said. “The county’s wait list for the family shelters is longer than I’ve ever heard of before.”

These families live in cars or with friends, trying to hide their plight and working to get back on their feet. Beggs refers many to the Forest Grove Family Resource Center at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School.

Other homeless people are isolated by mental illness, such as a disheveled man who pushes suitcase-laden shopping carts around Forest Grove.

Still others simply choose to keep more to themselves. Mark Oberzil said he has gotten to know a former warehouse worker named Ron. “I first met him under a local bridge,” said Oberzil, a Forest Grove resident.

“He was surrounded by garbage, empty cans and old issues of National Geographic. He spends his days in the library, mostly sleeping. He also told me once that he’s writing a book.”

In Forest Grove, the spotlight is on the clusters of visible, drinking homeless people whose money comes largely from redeeming recyclables or government assistance.

Not all that money goes to alcohol. A few Saturdays ago, for example, Thompson Jr. went through the Safeway checkout line with a full cart that included dog food for Stoner, plus a Valu-Pak of ground beef and other supplies for a barbecue.

He wheeled the cart to Bard Park, where another 10 or so homeless friends, bikes and dogs in tow, gathered around park benches, waiting for the food so they could begin cooking their communal meal on one of the park grills.

Dixie Aeschliman, a regular Safeway shopper, said most of those gathered by the recycling center are polite. “They say, ‘Hi ma’am,'” she said.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t throw their garbage all over the place and break their beer bottles. And the cussing!” said Aeschliman, who lives near an alley frequented by the same crowd.

The public drinkers acknowledge such problems. “I have seen people getting arrested for fighting,” said Ray Faulk, 62, who lives on 17th Avenue but joined a few homeless friends recently for a drink in Rogers Park. “Some people overdo it.”

The police: Trust and respect help officers build rapport

Forest Grove police officers have the most direct — and most complicated — relationship with the visible, alcohol-consuming homeless crowd.

Much of their contact is sparked by problems, including reports of intoxicated people passed out in various places: Dollar Tree, Plaid Pantry, Grampy’s Corner Deli, Forest Grove Tobacco Shop.

Forest Grove Police Chief Kerry Aleshire thinks a ban on public drinking would be good policy. But he has a personal perspective as well: “I’ve gone to take my daughters to the park and pulled up and saw people who didn’t look right, sitting there drinking their bottles of beer,” he said. “I took them to a different place.”

In Forest Grove, “detox holds” have spiked dramatically, from two in 2003 to 19 so far in 2008. People incapable of caring for themselves must be ferried to the Hooper Detoxification Center in Portland.

“Obviously, that’s an hour and a half of taking an officer off the road,” Capt. Aaron Ashbaugh said.

Officers who are called to break up an alcohol-fueled fight or to remove someone who is urinating in front of children at a public park may be seen as aggressive and disrespectful by the people they confront.

Ken Thompson Sr., 55, does his share of grumbling about the police — claiming they once tore up people’s sleeping bags while breaking up a homeless camp, for example.

But Thompson has only praise for Officer Matt Smith. “He’s the one cop in this town I would trust. He’s so respectful. He treats you like a human.”

Smith joined the Forest Grove force six years ago and a year later ran into Thompson, a former carpenter whose alcoholism triggered a downward spiral. Smith was particularly concerned because Thompson was living in the woods off Oregon 47 with his wife, two sons and pregnant daughter.

It was cold and snowy. “I don’t know how they survived,” said Smith, who used to check on them at night and donated a tent.

Smith also treated the Thompsons to McDonald’s a couple of times and promised to bring them warm clothes. “He came back two hours later with clothes,” Ken Thompson Jr. said.

Smith, along with Officer Jason Moser, tries to build rapport with all the homeless people in town. For one thing, Smith said, they’re good crime-spotters.

“If people are up to no good during the day, they’re likely to see it. If they like you, they’re much more apt to speak to you and report it to you.”

Moser adds, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

For another thing, if people are belligerent and drunk, Smith has a better chance of calming them if they trust him. “I’d rather talk to somebody for two hours than arrest them and take them to jail,” Smith said.

Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in history, is drawn to personal histories. “These folks have some of the best stories you’re going to find.”

Usually, after he learns about them, Smith asks, “Why did you start drinking?” and “Why do you continue to drink?” hoping they might reconsider an alternative path.

Capt. Jeff Williams, too, remembers trying to help homeless people find legal aid, housing and other services — many of them in Hillsboro — when he was a patrol officer a decade ago.

Sometimes he would write, “Please give this person a free ride” on the back of his business card for bus drivers to see.

Still, Williams said, “You could have all the social programs in the world, but there’s so many other issues that could be barriers.”

Not having a place to clean up for a job interview is one such barrier, he said. And with no clock or calendar to help track the time, it’s easy to miss a morning appointment.

It’s a fate that could be closer to many people than they realize, Moser said, particularly with the current economic crisis: “All you need is the right set of circumstances and anybody could be without a home.”

Public perceptions: Loiterers draw wide range of reactions

Leaving Safeway one sunny afternoon, some Pacific University students stopped to greet Ken Thompson Sr. as he sat on the sidewalk near the recycling center, drinking.

The students gave no sign of discomfort or judgment about Thompson’s apparent homeless, alcoholic status, but instead smiled and petted his dog, Brutus, before waving goodbye.

Forest Grove Police Chief Kerry Aleshire thinks a ban on public drinking would be good policy.

Forest Grove Police Chief Kerry Aleshire thinks a ban on public drinking would be good policy.

Thompson said he has gotten to know many people from this perch, about 10 feet from two “No Loitering” signs inside the recycling center. “Safeway’s cool,” he said. “They let us come out here.”

Occasionally, he said, police tell him to get off the sidewalk, which is public property, and onto the grass, which is Safeway property. After a while, Safeway workers might tell him to get off the grass and onto the sidewalk, he said.

Forest Grove Police Capt. Aaron Ashbaugh said homeless people recently have been asking customers at the recycling center for their cans. And last spring, he said, a Safeway customer flagged him down to report a man who was aggressively asking for money.

When Ashbaugh and a fellow officer got out to investigate, in uniform, the man tried panhandling them as well.

Forest Grove resident Mark Oberzil, a frequent Safeway shopper, said nobody there has ever asked him for money, although his grown son was approached once in a polite way. Oberzil said he is instinctively wary of homeless people because of their desperate straits, but he talks with them and thinks that “hiding them, or shooing them away, would be heartless and cowardly.”

Police say the business community’s response to homeless loiterers varies widely. Some businesses don’t mind them. Others want police to remove them, take names and never let them back.

Safeway Corporate Public Affairs spokesman Dan Floyd said the Forest Grove Safeway draws more “street drinking and homeless people” than Safeways in cities with public-drinking bans.

He also said some customers have complained about harassment. But he did not know how many complaints had been lodged or whether they had started only recently. Floyd also did not provide the official store policy regarding loitering and public drinking.

Kirk Edelman, the Forest Grove Safeway’s new assistant manager, said the store doesn’t want to restrict the homeless, as long as they don’t hurt or harass other customers.

“As long as they come in and shop — and they do — they’re customers,” he said. “We have to treat everybody equally. They deserve respect also.”

The community: Churches are at the forefront in the search for solutions

Eric Canon thinks Forest Grove can do better than its current reactive approach of waiting until the homeless, drinking crowd gets out of hand and then calling police.

Canon’s church — the Forest Grove United Church of Christ — sparked a countywide movement to address homelessness and was one of several last year to offer a severe-weather shelter, complete with hot meals.

The church also cooperates with Forest Grove United Methodist Church to host homeless families through the Family Bridge rotating-shelter program.

Meanwhile, Forest Grove continues its grass-roots efforts this fall with help from Liz Swenson, who is handling the “responding to homelessness” section of the city’s vision statement action plan.

Swenson wants to get ideas from a working group of service providers and people who are either homeless now or have been in the past.

Canon would like to see brainstorming from all local organizations and businesses that — like it or not — deal with the homeless: police, fire and other city officials, Safeway, the library, the Chamber of Commerce, Pacific University, schools and churches.

Churches are at the forefront of the issue, partly because of their mission to help the needy and the outcast but also because homeless people looking for help show up at church doors across the city.

His Church Forest Grove Foursquare, which runs a weekly food pantry, gets roughly a dozen visits or calls for help a week, said secretary Jackie Slaughter.

St. Anthony’s Catholic Church served nearly 300 people last month through its food pantry. And for a dozen years, it has offered free motel vouchers through the Forest Grove Police Department.

That program stopped temporarily last year, said Capt. Aaron Ashbaugh, after it was abused by people who would snag a free room and host a wild party with their friends. It was scheduled to resume Oct. 1 with new screening criteria, he said.

The First Baptist Church, which cooperates with the Oregon Food Bank to offer monthly food baskets, gets phone messages each month from strangers asking for help.

“I got one from a guy in Clackamas,” said Laura Dehner, a church volunteer who helps return the calls. “They just go through the phone book. He’s like, ‘Now which church are you? Where’s Forest Grove?'”