I confess at the outset that this story has nothing to do with beer, but is about bourbon … sort of. But it is also about the assault on alcohol — and to some extent civil liberty — a subject I find myself writing about more and more these days, so that’s why I decided to write this. I certainly didn’t set out to make the neo-prohibitionists my cause célèbre, but I find that few things get me as worked up and angry than people whose sole mission appears to be telling the rest of us how to live. I guess that makes me an anti-control freak, or something.
At any rate, the story involved a St. Petersburg, Florida man named Evan Preston who local authorities have dubbed the “Woodstock Santa.” He’s been given this epithet by local authorities, and especially city council member Bill Foster, who hopes to stop Preston from giving gifts to the homeless. Now lest I paint Foster as a complete Scrooge, he’s apparently okay with giving them blankets or a warm bowl of soup. What he doesn’t like is that Foster gives the homeless what they really want: booze.
The eccentric Evan Preston (at left in the long gray beard), age 72, owns a well-known jewelry and art store and has in the past helped the local community raise money for a variety of causes by donating artwork.
He’s apparently helped his town’s Make-A-Wish Foundation and also nearby Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. Four years ago, he decided he wanted to do something for St. Petersburg’s growing homeless population that congregate around the downtown Williams Park, near his business. So for a few years now, he and several friends and colleagues pass out 100 bottles of bourbon and cigars to the homeless.
Here, let’s pick up the story from Tampa’s Creative Loafing website:
“At first, I thought it would be interesting to give out a six-pack and a cigar,” he says over a glass of homemade sangria in his kitchen. “When I saw the excitement in their faces, it was inspirational.”
After a few outings to various homeless enclaves around the city, he says, St. Pete’s homeless began to recognize him. When he pulled up in his Bentley, they would run at him, jump on the car and hug him tightly.
Preston became the homeless’ Santa Claus, a 6-foot-2 bearded Samaritan in a T-shirt and jeans who gave all the good street men and women what they really wanted for Christmas.
“Last time, a man came up and said, ‘Thank you, this is so much better than a warm blanket,'” he recalls. “It’s shocking how much everybody loves it.”
“There is no motive to what we do,” he says. “It’s a gesture of goodwill.”
Well, you just know something like that will not be permitted for very long, not without somebody trying to put a stop to it. And right on cue, Foster is appalled that someone might give alcohol to alcoholics. Part of his reasoning is that alcohol is what put them on the street in the first place. While that may be true in some cases, he really doesn’t know that with any certainty whatsoever. But the idea that not giving a homeless person that alcohol is somehow going to cure them or make their life any better seems ridiculous at best, and uncharitable and obnoxiously self-righteous at worst.
Apparently there’s already a local ordinance in force that prohibits passing out alcohol in public parks — which seems weird enough, why would that be a problem? — but the code does not apply to city streets or right of ways, a loophole that Foster is trying to close. He’s sent a memo to the mayor and other city council members urging them to make it illegal to hand out alcohol in essentially any public space. If you want to give your neighbor a bottle of wine this Christmas, you better be careful not to hand it to him on the sidewalk. Stay on your own property if you don’t want to break the law. Apparently it doesn’t matter that alcohol is legal for adults and giving gifts is likewise not a crime, but don’t put those two things together in Florida. Yeah, that seems reasonable.
In the memo Foster claims “Mr. Preston is an affront to every business owner and resident of the downtown area, and should not be a welcomed figure in St. Petersburg.” An affront? An affront is a “deliberate act or display of disrespect,” an “intentional slight.” I don’t know who Bill Foster thinks he is, but he obviously believes people should be bowing and scraping to his delusions of grandeur. Can he really have convinced himself that Preston is giving the homeless booze to personally offend him? This is a difference of opinion at best. I don’t see how it’s the business of government to regulate where citizens can commit a legal act like gift-giving? Foster may not like what Preston’s doing but in a free society that should be the end of it. But Bill Foster apparently believes a free society is only one where people do what he likes, and apparently he’s not even the only nut job on the city council.
“Is that really the best gift you can give somebody sleeping outside—bourbon?” said Rene Flowers. “I don’t know what a bottle of bourbon goes for these days, but I’m sure that would buy some soap, a small washrag, maybe a comb, some coffee, maybe a nice, hot meal.”
Where exactly would a homeless person use a washrag and soap exactly since they probably don’t have a bathtub for them to use there in Williams Park? And while a nice dinner does sound good, why does Flowers think that private citizens have to confine their charity to what she thinks is appropriate? For all their posturing, the homeless problem itself is never addressed by the city council, only that a private citizen shouldn’t be allowed to give them a little comfort from time to time at his own expense. It really doesn’t matter if you or anyone else thinks giving alcohol to a homeless person is a bad idea, in a free society any private citizen is and ought to be allowed to choose both the scope and nature of his charity. They should be applauding the fact that’s he’s doing something, anything. But from the response of the city council, they don’t seem overly concerned about the homeless people themselves. The very fact that there is such a homeless problem in this medium-sized town (the population is just under 250,000) suggests that whatever the city council is doing, if anything, it has not alleviated the situation or the conditions that caused these people to become homeless in the first place. Maybe it’s the guilt over their own failures that makes them lash out over someone merely trying to provide a little solace and comfort to someone whose life is, I can only assume, complicated and difficult, to say the least. But please, let’s stop attacking alcohol already, shall we? I’d like to get back to talking about beer again, thank you very much.
If you want to hear more about this, a local Tampa television, Tampa Bay 10, station did a report that’s online. Also, a Los Angeles radio station recently did an interview with Evander Preston which you can listen to online.