Thursday, April 18, 2024

A drunken man settles in at the Central Square T stop in September 2008. A dozen arrests for in March for public drinking show the problem hasn’t gone away. (Photo: Rob Colonna)

This weekend’s good weather is cause for celebration, but in Central Square — where proximity to shelters and social services makes for a convenient hangout for the homeless — celebration, at least in the form of alcohol, is cause for concern.

During the last patch of sustained good weather, over six days in mid-March, Cambridge police made a dozen arrests for drinking in public, drawing the attention of the square’s business community.

There’s no doubt the public drinking will happen again.

“Obviously there is not a holistic solution at hand,” said George Metzger, interim president of the Central Square Business Association. “But I think we may be at a point where there is a common level of frustration with the problem among businesses, residents, officials, et cetera.”

Eight of the arrests were of residents of the Albany Street shelter run by Caspar, which stands for Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Rehabilitation. Others were from the city’s University Lutheran Shelter and Boston’s St. Francis House.

Many of those charged were known to police because the police have arrested them many times before. “We see them very quickly,” said Cambridge Police Deputy Superintendent Steven Williams, referring to the frequency of arrests. “Some you can see several times within a couple weeks’ span.”

Most of the March arrests were made in the late afternoon and evening, and over a weekend when high temperatures were in the 60s. Those arrested are always scheduled to be in court on the next business day, Williams said, so someone arrested on a Friday would be held until court the next Monday unless they can post a bond and go free.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office didn’t have statistics on such arrests available. Spokeswoman Jessica Venezia said the Medford court’s rotating judges tend to handle the arrests on a case-by-case basis and can dismiss charges, as reportedly happened with the Central Square arrests from mid-March.

The city ordinance doesn’t authorize jail time as a punishment for public drinking, Venezia said, just a fine estimated at $250. Homeless people, of course, are unlikely to be able to pay.

If the person arrested can’t pay the fine, they can be considered in contempt of the fine and jailed — typically for not more than a night.

“You can’t really keep someone in custody,” Venezia said.

Within the limits of the law, Williams said, “generally the courts have been receptive to the issue that it’s a community concern.”

But business people in Central Square know that doesn’t relieve them of the need to lead. Daniel Goldstein, of the Clear Conscience Café, has been meeting with police and other business owners to discuss the problems resulting from the presence of the homeless, and Metzger said sessions with city and state officials are being organized, with the support of the Chamber of Commerce and local business associations, “to reconsider what possible avenues there are to deal with what is obviously a growing problem.”