Where Do Homeless People Legally Drink Alcohol?


By Bridget Reilly

 I recently saw a pamphlet about Ballot Initiative 76, regarding a new proposal to privatize the liquor industry in Oregon.  Mothers against Drunken Driving (MADD OREGON) put out this pamphlet, which is totally opposed to the measure in the belief that it will increase the drunk driving accidents.  A quote from Jean Canfield, President of MADD Oregon, reads as follows:

“MADD Oregon is against privatization due to the following concerns: Availability of hard liquor to youth in retail packing stores and convenience stores.  The increased convenience and easy assess to liquor will promote drunk driving incidences, resulting in more injury and death.”

As in New Hampshire and perhaps—other states, the liquor stores in Oregon—that is, the ones that sell hard liquor- are state owned.  Beer and wine are sold only in grocery stores.  But all such stores, and also the bars, are beholden to a very unpleasant creature known as the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).

            Now, as an Oregon resident I am concerned as anyone about drunk driving.  My husband regularly travels on particularly hazardous stretch of road known as “Blood Alley”, the section of highway 58 that connects Oakridge to Eugene.  He is very careful driver himself, with extensive practice at negotiating that road, but the other drivers he encounters are not similarly careful and practiced, and if any of them are drunk it could spell disaster for themselves and anyone they happen to pass.

MADD is rightly concerned about the dangers of drunk driving.  However, there is a need to take a closer look at their assumptions regarding Initiative 76 and their perception that it automatically carries an increased threat of drunk driving tragedies.  Their total support of what they call “our current well run system” of controlling liquor consumption suggests that their experience with the OLCC’s policies and methods has been very different from mine, to put it nicely.

The pamphlet contained numerous statistics about alcohol related accidents and such, but gives no actual evidence that Oregon’s system is superior to those of other states for the purpose of protecting people from such accidents.  It sounds to me as if they’re merely feeding into a collective fear of the unknown that is akin to NIMBY’ism.  They evoke “What if?…” scenarios such as this:

“Initiative 76 would…Allow easier access to hard liquor with expanded hours during the day, even into early morning hours—maybe even 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at neighborhood convenience stores ad most supermarkets…Do we really need or want hard liquor for sale next to the beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores?…”

This suggests to me that they are perhaps ignorant of the privatized systems in some other states that don’t necessary involve such extreme conditions.  In Massachusetts, for example, beer and wine are sold in liquor stores along with the hard liquor.  They are not sold in grocery stores at all, at least not in chain supermarkets in Boston that I was most familiar with when I lived there.  All liquor stores are closed on Sundays, and are open only until 11:000pm Monday thru Saturday, if I recall correctly.  This shows that a privatized system does not have to mean a total absence of all restrictions on liquor sales. 

Since that also happens to be the system I was most familiar with before moving to Oregon, you can perhaps imagine my surprise and displeasure when I moved back here with Rick in 19991 and discovered the very different system they have here. 

One day I innocently walked into a Portland liquor store, looking for a cheap quart of beer.  I looked and looked, and was puzzled to find only hard liquor on shelf after shelf.  I finally had to ask, “Do you have quarts of beer?” The proprietor knew then that I was from out-of-state, and patiently explained that all the liquor stores in Oregon were state owned, and that they only sold hard liquor.  To but beer or wine I would have to go to a grocery store.  I also noticed that this place was only open till 8:00pm, which seemed mighty odd.  So that was the first lesson.

Next, I went into a grocery store in the Old Town District and found a 40oz bottle of Magnum.  I plunked it down on the counter, all ready to pay for it like I’d done thousand times in Boston; then the cashier asked me, “Where are you going to drink it?” When I hesitated to answer because I couldn’t believe he was for real in asking me such a question, he proceeded to explain that every one wanting to buy beer in that store had to present an Oregon ID, a rent receipt and room key to prove they have a residence in the neighborhood, that this was part off an effort to stop the “bums” from drinking in a nearby park.

I explained to him that we don’t live in the neighborhood, that we were traveling in our car and going to drive somewhere else and drink it.  He said “Well I’ll tell you what: if you drive the car around to the door so I can see it, I’II sell you the beer.”  I couldn’t do this because I’m not the licensed driver, and Rick was away at the explain that the OLCC watches all the stores in that area like a hawk and forces them to put all these ridiculous restrictions on who can buy their cheap beer, on pain of losing their license.   I said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!”  He admitted that he didn’t like it either, as they lose a lot of business that way.  He even offered to give me the phone number of the OLCC so I could call them and complain.  But he would not sell me the beer. 

At other times when Rick had brought the beer at the Plaid Pantry convenience store on east Burnside adjacent to the Recovery Inn (a shelter and homeless resource center), he was surprised that they checked his ID, along with the fact that the beer coolers were locked.  He soon realized that this had nothing to do with his looking young (you’d have to be blind not to see that he was well past 21), but that it was part of the OLCC’s effort to prevent alcohol street people from buying alcohol, as most of them didn’t have ID’s and this particular store, as well as the ones in Old Town, were near where a lot of homeless people hang out.   Sometimes even his driver’s license wasn’t enough either, as it was an out-of-state license.  And one clerk doubted it was even valid, saying, “But you don’t have a Boston accent.”

They eventually admitted to him that the only reason they sold him beer at all was because they saw him drive up in a car, rather than just walking in off the street.  He had not bought beer in several other Plaid Pantries and other stores in the Portland area that were not homeless hangouts and was not carded in any of them, nor were any of their beer coolers ever locked.  So the pattern of discrimination was all too graphically clear.

The Plaid Pantry on east Burnside was also the one where we got our coffee every morning, so we had gotten acquainted with a number of the employees there and found that they were not the least bit happy with those stupid policies the OLCC forced on them either.  One of them said it didn’t even stop at beer sales: OLCC people had actually come into the store and told them not to sell food to street people, as that only encouraged them to hang out in the neighborhood!

Two years after the aforementioned incidents, I happened to see a story in the Oregonian by Lee Perlman, dated Dec. 23,1993, entitled “Store manager rips Peidmont group at OLCC hearing.”  It seems that the Handy Food Mart in North Portland (a predominantly black neighborhood) was being threatened with loss of their liquor license because the Peidmont Neighborhood Assoication (which was predominantly white) had made claims of a “proven connection between liquor consumption and youth  gang activity” in the neighborhood.  They were vigorously backed by the OLCC, the Portland City Council and the Bureau of Licenses in their recommendation that this stores liquor license be yanked.  The store managers however, had a very sharp lawyer who questioned representatives of these hostile groups at the hearing on a license refused to crease selling malt liquor in 40oz containers, but did agree not to encourage their sale through pricing “specials”.  He agreed to monitor loitering and illegal activity, but only if it could be seen easily from his store   window.  He agreed to file complaints against people shoplifting liquor.  He refused to place an identifying stamp on liquor containers so that problems related to liquor sales could be monitored.” 

In other words, he agreed to the conditioned that could reasonably be expected of a store in any neighborhood.  But that was not good enough for those city agencies, whose racist paranoia dictated that he follow every one of those commands to the letter.

It is quite obvious to me, from all that I’ve seen since I moved to Oregon, that the OLCC’s policies are largely based on classiest and racist attitudes which have very little to do with the real issues and dangers of alcohol abuse.  They are not really addressing these issues at all, but are merely discriminating against the peaceful, responsible adult drinkers who happen to be homeless, black, Hispanic, or residents of poor neighborhoods.  I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with Initiative 76 itself.  I think it’s really “six of one, half dozen of the other” whether they privatize the liquor industry here or not, and it’s anyone’s guess whether this would have any impact on the number of traffic fatalities.  But I do not know that the current system reeks with class and race bias, and that   the OLCC is much more interested in meddling with the lives of the poor and minority drinkers than in protecting them from drunk drivers.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  

 Editor’s Note:  Bridget is a long time writer for the Grapevine from Eugene, Oregon.  She previously published a newspaper called the Houseless Journal.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle May-June 2002 Cleveland, Ohio