My evening in “The Drunk Tank” and the Inefficacies of the Status Quo
By: Joe Kulpa
A vindictive bartender whom I did not get along with called the Denver Police to come pick me up one Saturday afternoon. Nevermind that I was below the legal limit, DPD was still obligated to take me away. The undeserved power of the bartender/bouncer employee who can illegally detain patrons with threat of physical force is better left for another story. I arrived at the Denver C.A.R.E.S. facility on Cherokee Street at around 4:30 in the afternoon and went through processing, which at the time all seemed fairly straightforward. I had never been to one of these facilities previously and was a little surprised at how different it was from all the movie and TV drunk tanks which consist of essentially a single, large jail cell. I entered this fairly large room, maybe the size of half of a basketball court, and see lines of cots similar to what you would expect to see in a military dorm. People were milling about, sleeping, reading, or even watching a movie. This “Drunk Tank” had a bookshelf with several dozen books on a variety of topics, a dozen bibles, some fantasy fiction, some DIY construction books and so forth. There was a giant flat panel LCD that at the time was playing the film “Shutter Island” with a group of men all sitting around in outdoor-style furniture watching; they segregate the sexes for obvious reasons. My initial reaction to all this was essentially, “Wow, this is a pretty nice place compared to what I expected.”
The facility refers to everyone that comes there as “Patients”. As I observed all these patients and facility employees, and chatted with a couple of them, I began to realize what a racket this facility is. The majority of the people in there, I would guess 90-95%, were homeless; only one other gentlemen and myself were actually trying to leave this place, everyone else was happy to stay. The facility does absolutely nothing to police the dorm area of prohibited substances. The man sleeping in the bed next to the one I was assigned told me flat out he sneaks stuff in here all the time. I watched another pair going to the bathroom together, in the same stall, every couple hours that I was there. I didn’t actually see what was happening, but I could tell their demeanor changed as they came out of the bathroom so I can only assume they were doing some type of drug, or performing sexual favors, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The employees chatted with the patients as if they were best friends, one patient even complimented her on her shirt, asking her if it was new. This was when everything started to click together for me. New patients came in after me and interacted with the existing men is such a way that it was obvious they visit the facility often. “Hey, you been in here all week?”, said one, “Nah, I just came back in this morning”, the other replied. I was told about how they are given 3 meals a day, are given medication and treatment, have spare clothes to distribute and even have an AA class. I would say the offering of an Alcoholics Anonymous class is one of the few things I ended up appreciating about this place. One man came in, and was actually stone sober when he entered. They admitted a sober man into an intoxication facility and provided him with all these amenities. I overheard the nurse administering the breathalyzer test that he blew zeros. I began to get disturbed that they were treating the facility as a homeless shelter and using public funds for people that either had no alcohol in their system or were allowing continued drug abuse to continue while patients stayed in the dorms. Men were puking in buckets right in front of everyone, many couldn’t even speak or get out of their beds. On my way out even, there was a line of homeless standing in front of the breathalyzer just waiting to admit themselves for the free bed and breakfast they would receive in the morning; free to them at least.
Upon dismissal, I was asked many questions, many of them repeats, on about a dozen different forms. The in-efficiency of their system is just another example of government bloat and unnecessary redundancy. Then, just as I was leaving, they charged me! That’s right, I was taken to Denver C.A.R.E.S. unwillingly, for 4 hours and they thought that I should be charged over $300. This is the part that truly irks me as a citizen. I have a job, pay taxes, was below the legal alcohol limit the entire time I was detained at this facility, and then they want me to pay them when I know that a good portion of everyone else in that dorm has no money or address and will get to leave in the morning scot-free, while myself and other local workers have to pay for them to use the facility as a revolving door. Of the 29,422 patients seen in 2014, 18,783 were homeless and 7,313 paid nothing at all upon discharge1. I can only assume a good portion of the homeless did not pay their full bill and were given a steep discount. If each of the 7,313 who paid nothing were charged what I was told, of $325, that comes to a net loss of $2,376,725 that must be paid for from public sources. According to the 2015 City and County of Denver Budget, a payment was appropriated in 2014 for Denver C.A.R.E.S. Services of $4,120,800. This leads me to assume that discounts were awarded to patients totaling in excess of $1.7 million.
In the 5 years I have lived in Denver, I have seen the homeless problem surge and get worse. The police won’t remove them from the streets in LoDo when everyone is out on the weekend, or from 16th Street Mall on a busy Saturday afternoon. Does something need to be done to help them? Of course it does. But the current system does not work, and like most complaints about money in government, the revolving door solution only serves to help those in the system who make the money off the facility.
1 – Denver Health Report to the City 2014, Denver C.A.R.E.S. Services Table, Pages 59-60.
2 – 2015 City and County of Denver Budget, Health Summary, Page 552
3- “Toast of the Town”, Westword, June 14th, 2001.