Street Alcoholics I Have Known

By Brian Whitney 05/29/15

It's much easier just to be disgusted, or frightened, at the sight of these guys and keep on walking.


I live in a small city, on the ocean, one that is mostly clean of litter and has a low-crime rate. Because of the contrast, where I live the street alcoholics are noticeable, and the ones that stay around for a while even more so. Some panhandle and are loud, while others try to blend in and stay out of everyone’s way. If you spend a lot of time in town, you soon notice the same guys drunk and hanging out, day after day.

When I started working as a homeless outreach worker for the city, I already had a fairly good idea of who I was going to be working with. One guy I saw all the time turned out to be named Jake. He was probably in his mid-50s, skinny, with wild hair.

I would see him constantly. It seemed like he was everywhere, trying to bum money, pissing in doorways, drinking in public. I always wondered what his story was, why was he like this? What had happened? How could he have become this way?

In my job as an outreach worker, I was to go around town and look for guys who were causing disturbances in the touristy areas and try to hustle them back to one of our shelters. There were two shelters: the city shelter and the wet house.

If the guy wasn’t too messed up, he would go to the city shelter where I worked. This was in a rundown part of the city, but it had a soup kitchen, lockers, a shower, places to sit during the day and cots to sleep on at night.

If the guy was drunk, he would go to the wet house. I don’t mean drunk in the traditional sense, that was fine at the city shelter; I mean drunk in the “unable to move” or “acting violent” sense. The wet shelter was basically a basement filled with cots in a really bad part of the city. Some guys on the street had lived there for a decade or more. The guys called it "The Club."

We had long-term goals to help these people as well, of course, but there are inherent difficulties involved in helping people in this situation. Even if we were able to get a housing voucher for the individual, which was extremely difficult on its own, then we had to find a landlord that would rent to a street alcoholic. Then, even if we did that, there were very limited support services to help the client adapt and adjust to his new environment, so often they were evicted, which started the cycle all over again.

The city had a van that would pick these guys up and take them to the wet shelter, where they could sleep it off.  A “wet house” is based on the philosophy of harm reduction, and operates behind the same principle as a needle exchange program. If people with addiction are going to engage in self-destructive behavior no matter what, many believe it better that they do it in a supervised environment, where detrimental effects can be managed. Wet houses also save the city tons of money. Instead of paying for emergency services, ambulances and jails, you just bring the guy to the wet shelter. 

A typical day at The Club went like this: Wake up at 6am on a cot in a basement with 20 other guys, have a breakfast of weak coffee and day-old doughnuts, and get kicked out at 7am. Then many of them would spend every second of their day either getting drunk or trying to. Some got disability checks; some panhandled, while others depended on the largesse of others. At night, they would come back hammered, and pass out on a cot again.

In my job in outreach, I also spent time with more garden-variety street alcoholics. These guys were a lot easier to deal with than Jake. They acted like they were cool, hanging out on street corners, laughing, drunk all day. 

In reality, they were broken and sad behind their façade, pretending they were just out partying with friends. Some of this crew managed to get motel rooms half the month. One of them would get a disability check and they would all crowd into the Motel 6, watch TV, drink and crash out. Then they would hit the streets and the shelter until another check came in.

Jimmy and Nick were of that variety. Jimmy's story, was that he had once been a salesman of some sort; he had money and a home, and he lost it all because of alcoholism and a tendency to act violent when he was drunk. Once it was lost and he wound up on the streets, he was having a hard time finding his way off. Though there was a glimmer of hope when you talked to him, that things might turn around.  

Jimmy and Nick were both charming guys in their 40s. Jimmy talked a mile a minute, played the harmonica and was always smiling. Nick was his quiet sidekick. When I met them, they had been around for a few years, drunk and panhandling, but not really causing problems, other than if you knew them you would cross the street as soon as you saw them. Not because they were dangerous, but because how hard it was to extricate yourself from a conversation with them.

Jake wasn’t charming. He was alone. He was angry. He was drunk all the time and his pants were often soiled. He would yell at me and call me names. I once saw him take out his dick and piss on the floor in the soup kitchen. Most of the time he was impossible to even communicate with. It was like he didn’t know who I was.

There was very little city money for housing, and support services for afterward was minimal. Even if we could have gotten a place for them, no landlord would want them. We had some housing vouchers, but this group was so far gone that it was impossible to find a landlord to take them. Even the worst slumlord in town would turn them down.

There was one guy I knew that had been around for a while. He was a hardcore alcoholic and although he was not a bad guy, he could be nasty, particularly to women, and would often say inappropriate things to the female caseworkers. 

His scene was to wander around town and aggressively panhandle, kind of a cross between “Hey, can you help me?” and a mugging. Needless to say, he and I encountered each other a lot.

His housing voucher came through and we found him an apartment. He was finally housed and off the streets.

This lasted only a few months before he was evicted. Apparently, he invited every other homeless guy he knew over and they tore the place apart. When I saw Joe on the street and asked him about it, he said there “were too many rules” and he liked it better at The Club.

Homeless alcoholics are not a priority to many people. They don’t vote. They have few advocates. But we could improve their lives a lot with even a small but smart investment of resources, if only we had the political will. More affordable housing could be built, government vouchers could be increased, and support services put in place. It isn’t an easy problem to solve of course. It’s much easier just to be disgusted, or frightened, at the sight of them and keep on walking.

After I left my job at the shelter, I sometimes got news about the guys and their ongoing stories, and, of course, I would still see the guys around on the street. 

Stunningly enough, Jimmy is sober now. I saw him in the supermarket the other day, and I started to turn so I could avoid him, but then I saw that his eyes were clear. He was happy to see me, and said he had not had a drink in a year. A few weeks ago, I heard a car horn beep and turned. It was Jimmy, smiling and waving behind the wheel of an older model car. I know that he had tried to go to detox a few times, it appeared that it finally took.

Sadly, Jake is still on the streets. When I was working with him, I learned that he used to be a welder and had a wife and kids. Then his drinking took over and it just kept going downhill from there. At first, when I left my job and saw him on the street, I tried to talk to him, but I could tell he had no idea who I was.

Brian Whitney is a pseudonym for an author and ghostwriter, his book Raping the Gods is available in the Spring of 2015. He last wrote 10 Signs You Are a Sex Addict and how to find help if you are a sex addict.

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