Walk in these shoes and tell me what you'd do: You're a waitress at the Lucky Wishbone. And there's a homeless guy with an alcohol problem you see all the time. In fact, sometimes he panhandles in front of your restaurant and you have to chase him off.
Anyway, one day, the guy is panhandling and a customer, trying to do something nice, tells the guy that he won't give him any money but he will buy him lunch. The restaurant is packed. There is only one small table. You decide to seat the well-meaning customer and the very intoxicated homeless guy. You're a little nervous about it but you decide to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. You pour them some coffee.
After a while, the homeless guy gets up and stumbles over to the coffee pot behind the counter, where customers aren't really allowed, and tries to pour himself another cup. You intercept him. He's unsteady. You try to take his cup and fill it but he won't let go. You don't want to make a scene in the restaurant. You fill his cup partway. Then he starts to get loud, complaining that he wants you to fill it all the way up. You fill the cup a little more. And then he turns around to walk away and he falls down. So much for not making a scene. Coffee sprays from his cup and soaks a customer at another table.
Afterward you wonder: Did you do the right thing?
There may be no menu more American than the burgers, fried chicken and milk shakes served at the Lucky Wishbone, a well-loved institution in Fairview. It's the kind of menu that carries a sense of populism, the kind of food that most people think should be available to everybody. But for the staff at the Lucky Wishbone, where homeless alcoholics are a chronic, exhausting, sometimes dangerous problem, every meal is about making the decision of who can and can't come in.
"It's an ethical, moral thing we deal with every single day," general manager Heidi Heinrich told me on Friday.
You want to give people a chance. Who doesn't? You don't want to judge by appearances. But sometimes doing what feels ethical burns you, just like it burned the guy who wanted to buy the panhandler lunch. In theory, every paying customer should be allowed a seat at the lunch counter. Plenty of customers believe that too. They are offended if they think the restaurant is shunning people on appearances. Other customers feel the opposite. They don't want their children around somebody who slept last night in a tent on the hillside above the jail. As a business, how do you navigate all that? Heinrich will tell you: one day, one customer, at a time. But sometimes she wonders why she has to. It doesn't feel fair.
Alcohol addiction and homelessness are often-interconnected issues across Anchorage but Fairview has to carry more than its share of burdensome problems. The Lucky Wishbone lately has been ground zero for ugly news about street alcoholics. In early March, two people were shot to death and a third wounded in a tent pitched in the brush near the edge of the parking lot. A few weeks later, a chronic alcoholic and semi-regular customer named Gregory Jack, who had been living at Karluk Manor across the street, died outside just down the hill from the restaurant.
Heinrich has worked at the Lucky Wishbone for 35 years. She knows the neighborhood's afflictions aren't all about homeless people but are instead about a handful of homeless people with the meanest sort of addiction, sometimes coupled with mental illness. Over the last few years, the messes in the parking lot, the break-ins, the cases of indecent exposure, the disruptions at the restaurant, all of it has gotten worse, she said.
And that has turned her into an activist. Along with Carolina Stacey, also a general manager at the restaurant, she has been lobbying in Juneau on behalf of the Fairview Business Association. They want more treatment, more detox beds, and case management for a small group of chronic homeless alcoholics, "frequent fliers," who bounce around among the sleep-off center, the shelters, the jail and the hospitals.
There's good sense to this approach. That population costs the public plenty already. Why not identify each of those people and give them a caseworker to follow them through the system and help them get services? If that can reduce costs and disruptions, it seems worth the money. Housing is an essential piece of the puzzle. There isn't a solid plan for that yet.
Heinrich and Stacey also want the city to do something radical. They want to outlaw selling alcohol to the frequent fliers on the list. It won't stop them from drinking. The women know that. But maybe that, along with better options for alcohol treatment and possibly housing, might get some of them off the streets.
It's an ambitious plan, as addictions aren't easy to vanquish, even for the willing. Might be simpler to close down the two liquor stores in the neighborhood and deal with some of the problem bars and low-rent hotels that have more than their share of police calls. But Heinrich and Stacey don't want their activism to be just about Fairview. They want it to be about Anchorage. The city has got to take a different approach to chronic homelessness, they say. What we are doing doesn't work.
But is it fair or even legal to target a small group of people and keep them from buying alcohol? That would have to be vetted. The Fairview Business Association points to a small, successful program in Green Bay, Wis., where 20 people who were causing problems in a neighborhood were put on a no-serve list. That effort was coupled with stricter regulation of bars and liquor stores. The association isn't proposing those.
Their ideas might seem radical to some people who don't live in Fairview, but to those who live there, the situation is extreme. If you put yourself in their shoes, you can sympathize with where they're coming from.
Thursday night, Heinrich told me, a couple came in. She recognized them from around the neighborhood. They looked rough and had been drinking. She seated them anyway. Early on, they got loud and she had to ask them to keep it down. Again, she thought, she didn't want to draw attention or to inflame the situation, or disturb other diners. The woman got up and went to the bathroom, where she left a foul, unsanitary mess. When she returned to the table, the couple tried to leave without paying. After Heinrich threatened to call police, they finally paid. And then Heinrich found herself with Clorox and gloves, cleaning the bathroom, regretting the decision she'd made to let them sit. She's so tired of cleaning up other people's messes, she told me. Something has to change.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.