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Drinking in downtown alley

Crispen Martinez, right, shares a beer with Joe Lucas in a downtown alley in Billings in October.

JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff

Committees working to find solutions to aid Billings’ downtown transient and homeless populations made announcements Wednesday that could prove to be game-changers.

An unnamed property owner has offered up his downtown building as a potential site for a sobering center, a concept used successfully in a program the Billings group has studied and admired, San Diego’s Serial Inebriate Program.

Some renovation will be required, said Marcy Neary, the executive director of the Community Crisis Center who co-chairs the committee working to implement a San Diego-style program for dealing with and, potentially, providing treatment for Billings’ 74 identified serial inebriates.

Neary said she’ll be seeking money, expertise and building skills from businesses and individuals who can “help to make it inhabitable.” The target date for opening a sobering center is June 1, she said.

City Attorney Brent Brooks said he heard from a deputy city attorney in Missoula about Washington state’s alcohol impact areas. Cities in the Evergreen State can work with the Washington State Liquor Control Board to designate areas where some alcohol products cannot be sold, the hours for the sale of alcohol are restricted and some container sizes are banned.

Brooks said it’s unlikely a similar approach can be taken immediately because it’s probably too late to file for consideration during the current session of the Montana Legislature.

On a related front, city attorneys in both Billings and Missoula are asking Montana Attorney General Tim Fox for a legal opinion on whether it’s lawful to ban the sale of certain sizes of alcoholic beverages in certain neighborhoods within a community. Brooks said he believes that Fox’s office will transfer that task to the Montana Department of Revenue.

Nell Eby, reporting for the American Indian Coalition Committee, said the coalition worked recently to keep a boy on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation who had wanted to move to Billings. It’s likely, she said, he would have been homeless had he made the move. With the help of Lisa Harmon, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, four or five other Native Americans were helped off the streets and into housing, Eby said.

“Our coalition is identifying the barriers to accessing services,” she said.

Administrators from the Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin discussed their work with about 100 Native American offenders participating in the Turning Point program, a drug and alcohol addiction program “designed to meet the special needs of the Native American population,” according to Kenneth Keller, warden at the facility that opened last summer.

“We take people where they are at and teach them what they need to learn,” said Hope Keller, program manager at the Hardin facility. “It’s an individualized program, not a cookie-cutter. People are treated with dignity and respect.”

While the 464-bed Two Rivers Detention Facility, a private jail that charges $76 per inmate per day, has the space and a 38-passenger van, it’s not likely that Billings judges would sentence offenders to serve time there, Brooks said.

“The first thing the judge will say is, ‘Yes, who is going to pay for this?’” Brooks said.

Suzanne Moran, outreach ministries director for Harvest Church, discussed the community center begun last month with the Montana Rescue Mission at the former Granny’s Attic site at 2812 Minnesota Ave. The center, where anyone can receive coffee, cookies and conversation, is open Wednesday evenings and Sunday after church, with plans for more hours on Friday evenings.

“It is a work in progress,” Moran said. “We hope people will decide that they’re ready for a change and stop by. Ultimately, we would like to be open seven days a week.”

Noting the progress announced Wednesday during the group’s monthly meeting, Billings City Administrator Tina Volek said she was thrilled when she walked into the room and saw the size of the crowd — about 50 people, most of them members of the five committees working to aid the targeted population and help people feel more comfortable when they shop, dine and work downtown.

“I think we are going places, folks,” Volek said.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.