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Homelessness, Malt Liquor and Social Policy

Well they’ve gone ahead and done it, legislated away malt liquor for several neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington, effective November 1. The state liquor board yesterday banned “29 drink brands” including, of course, malt liquor. Now I’m not a fan of malt liquor (except perhaps for Dogfish Head’s wacky craft malt liquor, but even that I wouldn’t drink under very many circumstances) but the idea that restricting the sale of certain inexpensive, but high alcohol drinks will in any way cure homelessness is ludicrous.

Apparently, the same or similar items were previously banned in the Pioneer Square area of Seattle. The new ban radiates out from Pioneer Square adding the neighborhoods of Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, the Central Area, the University District and the International District. This essentially widens the ban area considerably and adds a new ban area adjacent to the University of Washington. But that simply suggests that the previous ban didn’t work and what many residents fear actually happened before, customers for these cheap, high-alcohol drinks — who are primarily, let’s face it, homeless or low-income — simply bought them elsewhere. So now the areas where they took there business will see a ban, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen next. Attendance at AA meetings will not sharply increase and homelessness will not disappear. Oh, it might be quieter in specific places where drunk homeless people would congregate and buy their vice of choice, but they won’t stop drinking. Heroin is illegal yet thousands and thousands manage to find it.

This will certainly make it easier for authorities to round up and further persecute the homeless. And it may keep them out of “your back yard,” a place nobody seems to want uncomfortable truths to stray into, but without treating the root causes of homelessness, alcoholism and other societal miseries nothing whatsoever will change. Naturally, city officials claim this is “only one step in an overall initiative to curtail homelessness.” When mayoral aide Jordan Royer says “[p]eople think we’re just pushing drunks around,” it shows he knows that’s exactly what he is doing. He goes on to say that the “city will monitor the effect of the new rules to ensure that they don’t simply displace the problems around fortified beer and wines favored by chronic inebriates.” Uh-huh, that’s believable.

The three-member Liquor Control Board defended its actions with such lofty principles as the ban was “needed for the greater good” and “[t]his was a community effort.” Board member Roger Hoen then had this priceless gem. “The fact is it’s a democracy and (the board) kind of went by votes and the majority of the testimony, the majority of the evidence and the majority of the information that came before the board was to support going forward with it.” I’m sure that’s true, but how many homeless people were allowed to speak, I wonder. Without addresses, they rarely vote so I don’t imagine their point of view was much sought after. But if they had, I imagine the more coherent and sane among them would have asked for shelter and perhaps a job. I don’t believe they chose homelessness or alcoholism as a lifestyle. And while this measure may do wonders for the residents who don’t like looking out of their windows and seeing the great unwashed littering “their” streets, it will do absolutely nothing to combat the issue of the homeless themselves, despite the local government’s hollow assurances.

Board member Roger Hoen “acknowledged some businesses would lose money because of the rules. But, in life, there’s a number of restrictions and inconveniences that we have to live with.” Actually, Roger, you won’t be inconvenienced one little bit so by “we,” you actually mean “they.” You should say what you mean or at least know what you’re saying. I think the “restrictions and inconveniences” you speak of will be borne, as usual, by the people with the least voice in our society, the invisible people without homes or a say in their lives.

But that’s depressing. Luckily, Merritt Long, chairman of the board, ends things on an “upbeat note.” “Besides,” he says, “customers can still choose from more than 4,000 other beer products allowed in Washington” Good point, Merritt, albeit cluelessly condescending, I’m sure we’ll see the homeless choosing a nice bottle of Westmalle Triple or a local barleywine. Way to show your compassion.

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