Getting expired beer off shelves a step forward for public safety downtown 

As the Downtown Safety Alliance and Officer Adam Hunt of the Great Falls Police Department have been working to address safety issues downtown, one problem they have begun to tackle is the sale of expired beer in downtown establishments.

That beer was substantially marked down and sold in some downtown shops for as low as 75 cents.

That created an easy, and cheap supply, of alcohol for downtown panhandlers, transients and vagrants.

To be clear, Hunt and downtown business owners have said on many occasions that the majority of people panhandling and causing problems downtown are not homeless. Those who are genuinely homeless, Hunt has said, typically live in homeless camps and stay out of the public eye.

Hunt is the Business Resource Involving Community, BRIC, officer at GFPD. He spends most of his time downtown, working with business owners, residents and those passing through.

Hunt said that panhandlers tend to say things like “homeless, need food” to get money, but that he has talked to many of these panhandlers and they have admitted to him that they do have homes and some even have jobs.

Hunt has observed some of the frequent panhandlers downtown get money from people, then take it directly into a store and purchase alcohol with that money.

Sandra Thares owns the O’Hare Motor Inn, home to the Sip and Dip, and has been one of the leaders of the effort to can expired beer sales downtown.

“It kind of goes hand in hand with the panhandling issue,” Thares said. “It just makes it way too easy to have the drunk and disorderly downtown. The easier we make it, the more problems we’re going to have.”

Thares said the Downtown Safety Alliance has been working with downtown establishments and the local beer distributors to remove any expired beer from shelves downtown.

It’s an effort that has support from the Montana Tavern Association, Thares said.

Len Watkins, general manager of Gusto Distributing, said that his company tries not to stock expired beer and that they work to keep track of their inventory so that anything expired is pulled from the shelves and destroyed. Once beer reaches its best by date, it’s still drinkable, but has to be steeply discounted, he said.

Watkins said there are a number of issues surrounding transients in the downtown and that he’s open to working with downtown groups to find solutions, though he’s not sure what those solutions will be. He said some towns have restricted the sale of 24 ounce beer cans and others have restricted malt liquor. He said that those who want a drink will still panhandle for it and so if the cheapest beer disappears, they might just panhandle for more money to buy the next cheapest option.

Gusto tries not to stock any expired beer, or remove it when their employees notice it.

“It’s caused more problems than it’s worth,” Watkins said.

In many ways, downtown is a social gathering spot for some people to drink with their friends. For most people, that’s a fun night out and not causing safety problems for others downtown.

But there are people who come downtown to find cheap alcohol and then cause problems for others downtown. Most of those people are not really homeless.

Hunt said that most of those causing problems downtown have homes locally or elsewhere and encourages downtown business owners to make their properties less appealing to transients.

The Coins for a Cause program is also being revamped to increase visibility and awareness. The program encourages people not to give spare change to panhandlers, but to instead drop that change in boxes and jars at downtown businesses and the money is then pooled and donated to agencies that provide services to the homeless.

Thares said the effort to remove expired beer from downtown shelves might seem small, but it’s a step toward lessening public intoxication, though that’s not a crime, and associated problems downtown, which can often include crime.

During a September presentation, Hunt said that public intoxication is not illegal in Montana, but some of the acts a person may commit while intoxicated can be crimes.

Walking in the street while drunk is illegal, as is serving intoxicated people.

Hunt told the group to make sure they self-enforce alcohol laws when it comes to serving intoxicated people.

“Do it before I have to,” he said.

A downtown establishment was cited this years when a person was overserved and then injured once they left the bar. He said he wrote more tickets over the summer than he can ever remember writing for alcohol related issues with transients. He’s also working with city prosecutors to send those arrested multiple times for alcohol related crimes to the 24/7 sobriety program.

“We’re making it harder for people abusing alcohol downtown,” he said.

Shoplifting is also a crime and it’s often the smaller items and beer that gets stolen from shops and gas stations city-wide. A few years ago, Hunt said a local gas station was having $2,000 worth of beer stolen monthly.

Hunt said some of the major issues downtown involved cheap alcohol, like a particular vodka that goes for $3-$4 and high gravity beer. On his way to the presentation, Hunt said he walked by a parking lot and saw a number of those empty cans.

“These are the bane of our existence,” he told the Business Watch meeting attendees.

“For many, many years we’ve been trying to tackle this from different angles,” Thares said.

Hunt regularly walks the streets downtown and visits businesses, talks to groups about downtown issues and responds to complaints. He also spends a great deal of time talking to the panhandlers and transients downtown. Hunt and the Downtown Safety Alliance also coordinate with a pastor who wanders the downtown, talking to transients, vagrants, panhandlers and the homeless. If Hunt, the alliance or the pastor finds people in need, they make referrals to local agencies like the Rescue Mission, Grace Home or other appropriate services.