A fire in April 2007 burned this eight-apartment building on Gastineau Avenue in downtown Juneau.
A man vomits on the Front Street stairs Monday. A downtown group is seeking to address the problems of urban decay in the capital city.
A locally made documentary is being shown to downtown business owners to seek solutions to Juneau's homeless problems.
An empty whiskey bottle lies in the stairwell of the Downtown Transportation Center Parking Garage Monday.
Story last updated at 7/22/2014 - 1:05 pm
Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series about efforts to improve the condition of downtown Juneau. Part two will appear in the July 23 issues of the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly.
A man sleeps downtown, a bottle of mouthwash tucked into his pants. Human feces litter the sidewalk. Empty beer and malt liquor containers overflow a vomiting trash can.
All of these images are from a recent short documentary on downtown Juneau, and all of them are meant to inspire change.
Local businessman Bruce Denton bought the Senate Building on Franklin Street with business partner Larry Spencer in 1982, but Denton wasn’t confronted with the day to day — and night to night — reality of downtown Juneau until he started hanging from the side of the building.
He was maintaining the building at night, painting, and saw people fighting, drinking and other things he wished he hadn’t — things that aren’t visible on crowded days like the Fourth of July, when downtown Juneau’s streets fill with parades and celebrating residents.
He spoke to local filmmaker and Alaska Robotics owner Pat Race, who spent four days filming the documentary highlighting many of downtown Juneau’s issues: the defunct parking meters, urban decay, chronic inebriation and homelessness.
Race tried to approach Juneau as if he’d never seen it before, focusing his lens on things that need improvement. There’s plenty that didn’t make it into the film, however.
There’s the couple who had sex on the steps next to Pocket Park, in broad daylight, an umbrella held overhead to protect them from the rain. Tourists walked by and took pictures; some people put them up on Facebook, where they were shared copiously and where they remain.
There’s the stash of pornography Denton found — along with a pair of children’s jeans — in a ceiling tile of his building.
Many in the documentary say they have been threatened or feel unsafe. One man said someone threatened to kill him with a machine gun. The list goes on.
“It is out of control, and it is a time bomb,” Denton said.
Even as a portrait of just four days in downtown Juneau, the film is catalyzing change, just as Denton and Race hoped.
One screen, many views
Denton and Race have been offering screenings of the film at the Gold Town Nickelodeon. They’ve also been having conversations with people like Mayor Merrill Sanford, Police Chief Bryce Johnson, downtown business owners, board members of the Glory Hole (Juneau’s downtown shelter and soup kitchen), the Mental Health Trust Authority, residents and state workers. They want to use the film to inspire people to make a difference.
Denton and Race have been careful to stay independent; they want to attract a coalition untainted by politics and bias.
“We’re a very loose community coalition,” Race said. “There are people that are already doing these jobs, and we’re just trying to help them.”
“I think it’s pretty clear we’ve got to do something,” Denton said. “Every little step will ultimately make a difference.”
Police Chief Bryce Johnson recently dubbed them the Downtown Improvement Group, he said.
At each showing, a few people stay until the end, then ask how they can help. Some sit and listen quietly. A few storm out, angry because they’ve been around for previous efforts and feel like nothing will change, Denton said.
Karen Lawfer, a member of Juneau’s planning commission, works at Midnight Sun Ventures and attended one screening. She says this year is worse than the previous seven.
“It’s more abusive, verbally,” she said. “I’ve had people follow me to my car, and the staircases of both parking garages. It’s intimidating.”
She and others are concerned about what might happen.
“This is the first year I feel it could escalate to the level of violence or assault,” Lawfer said. “I’ve never had to think about that in Juneau, and I’ve lived here 34 years.”
Jennifer Lindley is the merchandise manager at the Fairweather Gallery in downtown Juneau. On a daily basis, she’s prepared to deal with drug deals, inebriation, human feces, vomit or some sort of altercation, she said. “On the days it doesn’t happen, that’s a gift.”
Last winter, someone threw a peppermint schnapps bottle through the shop’s window (it broke the outer window but not the inner one). The window is right next to a public trash can.
In another incident, someone stored stolen items in the store’s garbage shed.
She said she’s considering resigning from her job because she can no longer park in front of the store the whole day and doesn’t feel safe in the city’s garages.
“I don’t like going into the (parking) garage,” she said. “It’s scary.”
While those at the screenings say things are bad, they also expressed concern for those who find themselves homeless, on the streets, or in the throes of addiction. Lindley sometimes gives out lunches and bottled water. She and her family collected blankets, sleeping bags, and warm clothing to donate to people sleeping outside, even giving them the socks off their own feet when they ran out. Many people asked her what agency she was with, she said, and they were surprised when she said she was just a caring neighbor.
“I don’t think there’s finer people than the people that live here (in Juneau),” Lindley said. “We can fundraise to support any cause, but we’re leaving it up to the agencies.”
“One of things we’re trying to do is to get people to take some of this on themselves,” Race said.
Case in point: after watching the video, Denton realized he needed to work on the Senate Building a little more.
“Some things in this video are already cleaned up,” Race said. “Business owners watched this, and they were embarrassed.”
“That’s what this film was designed to do,” Denton said. “Shake people and wake them up. I’ve been here for 30 years, and I didn’t know how bad it was until I was hanging off the side of the building.”
Problems overflow Glory Hole capacity
Mariya Lovischuk, executive director of the Glory Hole, said she was happy to be invited to watch the documentary.
“I’ve been thinking a lot, because I walk downtown from my car to work, and I see folks who are chronically inebriated,” she said. “It bothers me a ton as a human being to see other human beings who are ill and suffering. It’s really great that Pat (Race) made the movie because it really does highlight this very serious social community issue that we have.”
In 2009, the Glory Hole started stringently enforcing its Breathalyzer policy. No one with a blood alcohol content of greater than 0.1 percent is allowed inside; that makes it a better environment for those who use it as a place to detox, she said.
Some contend that the Glory Hole itself causes problems, because it no longer lodges those who are drunk and pushes them into Juneau’s streets. Lovischuk doesn’t think that’s true.
The solution, she and others say, is a new kind of housing for Juneau: permanent supportive housing. Next week’s Capital City Weekly and Juneau Empire will delve into this type of housing, which allows drinking.
Lovischuk and others blame the downtown problems on cheap, high-alcohol liquor.
“A lot of problems with folks who are chronically inebriated would lessen if there were not so much access to packaged liquor,” Lovischuk said. “Where do most of the public disturbances happen? How close are these disturbances to places that sell packaged liquor? It’s not all liquor stores. Not all bars. Most don’t sell to people who have chronic, very severe substance abuse issues. But some liquor stores do and some cater to those folks almost specifically, and I think that is a huge, huge issue.”
She pointed to one of the images in the documentary that stood out to her: malt liquor cans spilling out of a garbage can behind the Emporium building.
“It’s just so clear that it’s just a huge problem, and that (type of) liquor is directly correlated to the behaviors people don’t want to see and find threatening — and is what’s killing people who are drinking it,” she said. “I think the combination of limiting that and building permanent supportive housing is at the heart of the solution to this.”
Juneau Police Department spokesman Lt. David Campbell said while some beverages may be popular with those suffering from chronic inebriation, he doesn’t think their removal will solve any problems.
“If a person is motivated to drink alcohol, they’re going to drink alcohol,” he said. “We even have people shoplifting Listerine sometimes for the alcohol content.”
He also said the liquor stores aren’t necessarily to blame.
“In my experience, the liquor stores actually do a fairly good job at turning people away because their liquor license could be jeopardized,” he said. “It’s easy to have the soberest one of the bunch go in, legally buy, and give it to friends who are beyond the limit. From an enforcement point of view, they don’t know who the end consumer of the alcohol is going to be.”
Just the same, not all liquor stores sell the liquor that’s blamed for the problems.
There’s also been talk about moving the Glory Hole; Lovischuk said this would cost about as much as building a new shelter and doesn’t think moving the Glory Hole is the right solution.
Lovischuk pointed to the building’s beautification, energy efficiency and rooftop garden, as well as patrons’ participation in community cleanups, as positive effects of its location.
“I would really like to expand that and work on that more,” she said. “I would really love to take part in those discussion and work on those solutions.”
Lovischuk said the documentary is a “perfect example” of productive dialogue in Juneau.
“Because the dialogue is so collaborative in nature, it will lead to good results,” she said. “I definitely feel there’s a big shift in how we’re approaching this.”
Taking a course in ‘Broken Windows’ theory
When he was in graduate school, Lt. Campbell wrote a paper about the role of community appearance in preventing crime. It’s an idea he still follows. In policing, it’s called the “broken windows” theory.
Broken windows — like graffiti, or general decay — send the message that no one cares, he said. They send the message that “It’s okay to act in a manner that perpetuates this type of activity. (But) if you can take an area and you can improve upon it, clean it up, send a message people do care, people are watching, it will improve. By focusing on quality of life issues, you can have pretty drastic effects on neighborhoods and whole areas,” he said.
In this way, the other issues the documentary addresses can have an effect on the ones that are getting the most attention.
Downtown officers have received training about crime prevention through environmental design, and they are advising downtown business owners on best places to put lights, position plants, or other aspects of business operations, Campbell said.
“I applaud his (Denton’s) efforts and I think it’s pretty obvious there is some definite room for improvement in the downtown area,” Campbell said. “I saw a lot of potential for growth. The issues are bigger than one person or one group, and I think that Mr. Denton is on the right track on getting a wide variety of interested parties together to try to address this.”
Regarding some people’s feelings that the atmosphere downtown has gotten worse, Campbell said June’s crime numbers haven’t been finalized. May 2014 did see an increase in the number of calls over May 2013, though he’s not sure if that difference is statistically significant. Part of that increase may be due to the fact that police receive more calls in sunny weather, and May was quite sunny, he said.
Environment can affect behavior in a very practical way, as well. Building owners have found feces on the floor inside their buildings in the mornings, near access to an unlocked bathroom.
Sometimes, however, there’s just nowhere to go.
Glory Hole resident Debra Harris said there’s nowhere in downtown Juneau to go to the bathroom after 9 p.m. without going into a bar.
“There’s no place to use a latrine anywhere in this town,” she said. “That’s a big issue.”
She experienced that problem herself one night after accidentally arriving at the Glory Hole past curfew.
“I finally tried to lay down in that parking garage,” she said.
A security guard came in and told the two people who had joined her that they couldn’t smoke. She asked about a place to go to the bathroom — he confirmed there wasn’t one.
So she walked somewhere and peed behind a garbage can.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what about the disabled people and older people, where are they supposed to go at? What are people supposed to do? Defecate or pee in their pants?’” she said. “Even the policeman — he said, ‘I’m sorry ma’am, there isn’t anywhere until 9 a.m.’”
‘We can’t be everywhere’
After 19 years in law enforcement, Campbell said he tends to see two attitudes about police. One holds that police are severely limited in what they’re able to do. The other is that they can do anything.
“Of course, neither one of those is accurate,” Campbell said. “We can take action where we have the statutory ability to take action.”
Having an open container of alcohol isn’t a crime, he said. It’s a violation. Police distribute tickets on an escalating scale, but if someone has no money, they can’t pay.
Being homeless is not a crime. Neither is loitering, or public intoxication.
Alaska has a law that prohibits people from being overly intoxicated in a bar — but there is no such rule about public streets, Campbell said.
“There have been communities that have tried to have ‘drunk in public’ type ordinances, and unfortunately they’ve been deemed to violate people’s rights,” he said.
Where the police or another agency come in, Campbell said, is if a person is intoxicated to the point that they can’t care for themselves. Only then can police take protective custody of a person as part of a medical response.
When someone’s intoxicated to that point, the first thing police try to do is find someone sober and willing to care for them, he said. That can be a family member, Rainforest Recovery Center, Bartlett Regional Hospital, or, if nothing else is available, the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
“It’s not a crime. It’s a safety hold,” he said. “It kind of turns into this revolving door, a little bit.”
Campbell exhorted those who see a crime not to be afraid to call police and report it — and to stand behind that when it comes time.
With only a few exceptions, like domestic violence or driving under the influence, police cannot arrest someone for a misdemeanor unless they’ve witnessed the act themselves, he said.
“A lot of the crimes downtown fall within the misdemeanor realm,” he said. “If an officer isn’t present … then we can’t arrest them and take them to jail unless someone is willing to say, ‘I saw this and will sign the citizen’s arrest form … it makes it very, very difficult for us to follow through. And if you don’t address the little things, then bigger things happen. ... We can’t be everywhere all the time.”
Homelessness makes people more vulnerable to crime; 62 percent of Juneau’s most vulnerable have been attacked violently since becoming homeless, according to a 2012 Juneau Homeless Coalition survey of 55 homeless people sleeping outside shelters around Juneau.
Also, according to information from the Juneau Homeless Coalition, fewer than three percent of Juneau’s criminal cases involved chronic homeless inebriates.
Many more crimes go unreported. Having people call to report crimes, then give their name as a witness, would be a big help, Campbell said.
The couple having sex on the steps next to Franklin Street is an example of that. In order to charge someone under the “open lewdness” statute, somebody has to go on record as saying they were offended, Campbell said.
“It’s a no victim, no crime kind of thing,” he said.
“One of biggest hurdles to overcome is getting the message out that this isn’t just a downtown issue,” Campbell said. “It’s important for the entire city to understand that a vibrant, safe productive downtown is good for everybody.”
Denton said they want the citizens group to “keep focused and stay positive.”
Race said they hope to address some of the smaller issues first, gaining momentum for the larger ones. They’ve organized a community clean-up for downtown Juneau beginning at 8 a.m. July 25.
“Juneau has an international reputation. We have this really powerful opportunity, if we know what we want to be,” said Juneau’s community development director, Hal Hart.