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Anchorage Forces Treatment on Some Homeless Alcoholics

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The city of Anchorage, Alaska is involuntarily checking homeless people into rehab in the wake of more than a dozen deaths due to drinking, exposure and other causes, the New York Times reported Oct. 25.

The city Community Service Patrol cruises the city streets looking out for problems among a population of more than 400 homeless people tabbed “chronic public inebriates.” Each day the patrol picks up those who have passed out on city streets and takes them to a sleep-off center until they sober up.

Some chronic inebriates are taken to a 10-bed detox and treatment center run by the Salvation Army, whether they agree or not. State law allows judges to commit individuals to treatment for 30 days or more if they are proven to be a threat to themselves or others.

Mayor Dan Sullivan has named a staffer and task force to deal with homeless issues. Sullivan, a Republican, and state Sen. Johnny Ellis have worked together to address the problems associated with Anchorage's growing homeless population.

“Ten years ago, there would have been a community outcry that Johnny Ellis is locking up people with the disease of addiction,” Ellis said. “'How can he do that and say he's still a progressive?' … The people dropping dead during the summertime really got this community paying attention.”

“If the access to services and treatment and supportive resources are there, perhaps this … will be a good thing for people,” said Michael Burke, an Episcopal priest who works with homeless alcoholics. “But if those latter pieces are not present, then you simply have a complex issue for which the only solution is let's lock up the people who are disturbing us. That's not an effective solution, and in the end it won't work.”

Alaska lawmakers have cut funding for longer-term addiction treatment.

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