"I'm an alki, if I wasn't a drinker I'd still have a job," explains DJ. "I went into AA in '66 and I didn't learn nothing... except that I admitted that I'm an alcoholic. Being an alcoholic isn't anything nice."

Alcoholism is prevalent among the homeless population in Covington. An unwillingness to change their lifestyle and an ability to live off the system entangles them in the web of alcoholism.

"We're all alcoholics out here," explains Dolph, "dysfunctional alcoholics is probably a better way to put it. A lot of people in society can function as alcoholics, we've just reached the stage in our drinking where we can't do that any longer."

Daniel was employed as a carpenter clearing $500 a week until he started visiting the river front on weekends to drink and visit friends. "At first it was just weekends," Daniel admits, "I kind of had my drinking under control. I was hurtin' at times, but I was still making it to work. Then I started missing days because I was too hung over, and pretty soon I was fired from my job. Then my ol' lady kicked me out, so I came down here (to the river bank). At first I thought I'd only be here for a little while, but now I think about how hard it is going to be to leave. Good jobs aren't easy to find." Daniel has been living in a camp on the river bank since August of 1993.

The homeless are frequently arrested and jailed for public intoxication. "Last year I did more than a hundred days," says Geno proudly, "That's more than anyone else out here. Isn't that right?" The others agree, Geno has the record for the most arrests, but some others aren't too far behind. It's one of the few opportunities the homeless have to get sober.

For Tony, getting arrested has been a weekly event recently. "I seem to get arrested every Saturday," he explains, "That's when I get drunk on whiskey. It's not so bad in there, it's warm, and we get to watch television. About the only time I brush my teeth and take a shower is in jail." Tony is usually released from jail after a court appearance where he is given credit for time served.

The police usually give the homeless a fair amount of latitude with public intoxication. When they do stop drunks it is usually in response to a complaint by a citizen or store owner. "We try to do what's right given the circumstances," explains Covington Police Officer Shilling, "we have limited space in the jail, and we like to keep it available for more serious offenses (other than public intoxication). When they get really drunk, some of these guys are a danger to themselves, that's usually when I lock them up." Officer Shilling has just responded to a call from a resident on Pike Street complaining of a fight. When he arrives he finds Reed Sharon unable to walk on his own. Some other homeless men are trying to help their friend out of the area. One of the neighbors thought the group was beating up the drunk man. "I'm taking him to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning," says Officer Shilling. "It's for his own good, otherwise he might get run over by a car." Shilling and another officer carry him to the squad car and lay him down on the back seat for a trip to the hospital.

When they arrive at the hospital, Officer Shilling supports Reed until he can get him inside and into a wheelchair. He checks in with a nurse and wheels Reed into the emergency room. "He was just in here," says one of the nurses. "We put staples in the back of his head just the other day... When was that?... Wednesday," responds another. The nurses checks their logs and found that two nights earlier they needed slmost 30 staples to close a large gash in the back of Reed's head. The wound was a result of a drunken fall. "He's in here a lot for alcohol poisoning," says a nurse to Officer Shilling. "In January alone we had five sheets on him. Here's a two nine, a two seven, a three one, another two seven and a three three... I wonder what he'll hit today," she says referring to the amount of alcohol in his blood. When the blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches .40 percent the body begins to shut down, a BAC of .10 percent is considered intoxicated for driving.

"They come into the emergency room like this every day. The night shift gets most of (the drunks)," says one of the nurses. "The police don't want them, we don't have room for them, the shelters are full, and it's getting worse all of the time."

The nurses use belts to restrain Reed in the hospital bed and prepare to take a blood sample. His BAC reaches .31 percent on this night. "He needs to be more careful," says one of the nurses, "or they'll be drawing blood from a corpse soon."


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All photos © 1994 John Decker

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