Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 13, 2012

Oversight for homeless Traverse City troublemakers?

Majority of city commissioners reject notion of wet house

TRAVERSE CITY — City commissioners plan to push for more court oversight of a dozen or so homeless people who local authorities have identified as troublemakers.

A majority of Traverse City commissioners rejected the notion of a wet house, a place where homeless alcoholics can live and drink. Instead, commissioners asked city employees to work with Grand Traverse County officials to set up a specialized homeless court.

Specialty courts, such as drug, sobriety and mental health courts, use more intense probation and supervision, as well as specialized services to address offenders' specific problems.

Commissioners dismissed wet houses as tools to enable people with alcohol abuse problems.

"I am (not) enthused about wet houses," said Commissioner Mike Gillman. "The more you make it easy, the more they are going to do it. The more you make it difficult, the less likely they are to do it."

Mayor Michael Estes asked police and the city attorney to investigate rules or ordinances that could prevent some homeless people from obtaining alcohol.

Estes contends some of the problems could be stemmed if homeless people were banned from purchasing alcohol, or if homeless panhandling or other sources of revenue-gathering could be stemmed to undercut their alcohol purchases.

Commissioners Barbara Budros, Jody Bergman, and Jeanine Easterday all favor pursing a homeless court to address an unruly few who authorities believe cause most problems.

Commissioner Mary Ann Moore remained open to wet houses and expressed concerns that if the city makes obtaining alcohol too difficult, it may push troublemakers toward more serious, violent crime.

Commissioner Jim Carruthers suggested the city pursue both wet houses and homeless courts.

Homeless courts in Michigan are generally set up to ease court system navigation for minor civil and non-violent offenses easier for homeless persons. Such courts often require participation in treatment programs to avoid jail time. Participation in homeless courts by offenders is voluntary.

"I think more tools in our tool box is a good thing and if a wet house presents itself we should allow it," Carruthers said. "We don't have to fund it, we just have to allow it to happen."

Wet houses are for chronic alcoholics who have either failed or refused to enter treatment programs, Carruthers said.

"It's basically giving them a humane place to go, out of the cold," he said. "It's a harm-reduction model to reduce the harm but not change the behavior, and that bothers some people."

Estes asked city staff to report on their progress in four to six weeks.

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