Street drinkers, many of them Indigenous, congregate outside the entrance to Safeway and on the nearby corners of Smith St and Moor St, Fitzroy and Smith St and Stanley St, Collingwood. Street drinking and the public disturbances that regularly result from it is a complex issue played out every day on Smith St. I’m sick of political correctness and middle class self censorship, particularly about this issue; I’m going to say what I believe.

The drinkers are sometimes quiet and subdued, and sometimes loud, intimidating, obnoxious, frightening and violent. There’s no point denying the reality of the lived experience of many local residents. Being constantly harassed for money is extremely unpleasant. Having violent and unpredictable drunks grab at your shirt to try to stop you or corner you is unacceptable. No one has the right to verbally or physically intimidate others on public streets.

The issue not primarily about race, and defining people who complain about street drinkers as racists is inaccurate and intellectually lazy. The issue of street drinking is a cultural problem, not a racial problem. This distinction is helpful because the culture of street drinking on Smith St is not limited to any specific racial or ethnic group. Drunk white middle class Gen Ys can be equally obnoxious.

I have no issue with the historical reasons why the area continues to be a meeting place for Aboriginal people, or with the various ways ethnic and cultural groups use public space. I think everyone has the right to use public space for almost anything, including naked cycling, as long as they respect the rights of everyone else who is sharing public space.

No one has the right to be violent, threatening and intimidating or to create a public nuisance by littering, using public space as a toilet or being so unpleasant as to force other people to cross to the other side of the road. Excusing unacceptable public behaviour because of its supposed cultural foundations is weak and cowardly on the part of local and state government authorities.

The role of local businesses is also a problem. One of the reasons why the drinkers gather outside Safeway is because that is one of the places where they buy alcohol. Safeway’s choice to serve these customers is a central issue. If Safeway refused to serve them, the drinkers may move elsewhere. I’m not concerned with solving their problems; I’m focusing here on the right of all local residents to feel safe in public space.

I wonder if Safeway understands how many customers it loses by encouraging violent drunks to gather by its front door. I know many Fitzroy residents who prefer the walk to the Carlton Safeway to do their shopping because the area feels far safer, especially at night. Women in particular tell me that Smith St is simply a no go zone after dark if they are alone.

Have Safeway’s evil number crunchers done the same kind of sums with alcohol sales that lead them to use deceptive labelling of butter to make more profit? Have they calculated that the money they earn from drunks buying alcohol all day is more than what they lose from scared middle class shoppers who go elsewhere for their groceries?

With two new supermarkets opening in Fitzroy in 2008 (Coles on Johnston St and IGA on Brunswick St), Safeway now faces greater competition. I am sure that this competition has motivated its current renovations. Who does Safeway want as its customers, and what is it willing to do to keep them?

Beyond the financial considerations, what responsibility does Safeway have to the general public? To what extent can it be held accountable for these problems? And what about other local liquor retailers?

I’d like to hear about your experiences buying alcohol around Smith St. I hope to uncover more about the social impact of the current tolerance of street drinking. What are the consequences of the current policies?

Have you seen drunks being served, or being refused service, in bottle shops? What professional or ethical standards do you expect from the businesses you engage with? Do you avoid Safeway and other businesses on Smith St because you feel unsafe there? Do you boycott Safeway on principle because it continues to sell alcohol to street drinkers?

the politics of selling alcohol to street drinkers

21 thoughts on “the politics of selling alcohol to street drinkers

  • 4 April 2009 at 2:18 am

    I agree wholeheartedly. Although I live on the other side of Fitzroy (shopping mostly in Carlton, the Brunswick St IGA and now Coles), every time I walk past the Smith St Safeway I feel very uncomfortable. Coincidentally, my friend was mugged around 8AM on the corner of Smith St and Johnston St two days ago by a group of men. While I’m not saying the mugging and the Safeway street drinkers have a causal relationship – it does make me concerned about the level of safety people have in this area.

  • 4 April 2009 at 8:08 am

    I would have assumed that the responsible service of alcohol also covered the liquor shops and supermarket outlets such as this one.
    With the stricter controls on nightclub liquor licenses surely the same can be reviewed for supermarkets?

    • 4 April 2009 at 9:35 am

      The same laws about responsible service do apply, but the enforcement seems equally vague. Concerns about not appearing to be racially discriminatory seem to have more of an impact than common sense decisions about the health and safety of the whole community.

  • 4 April 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Yes! Thankyou for posting about this! While I love Smith Street and all the amazing things that it offers, I very often feel uncomfortable on this street, especially around the Safeway/southern end, and often feel scared if I am by myself. I don’t have any suggestions about what could be done to fix this problem but it would be nice to be able to enjoy the area without feeling threatened.

  • 5 May 2009 at 3:09 pm

    I am quite happy to argue the case against you on this one.

    I have lived within 150m of the Safeway in question for more than 5 years. I visit it more than twice weekly, at all times of the day and night. I have never been ‘threatened’ by any of the various drinkers loitering in the vicinity. I do occasionally get asked for cash (which is fair enough – I obviously have some, they don’t). Every now and then they are arguing with each other or yelling back and forth. My partner has, alas, seen them fighting.

    Is this a public safety issue? Only marginally, and much of the safety concerns would seem to be with regards to the drinkers’ personal safety. The local cops keep a pretty regular eye on proceedings, while not acting too heavy handed (from what I have seen).

    Does this make the location unsafe for passers by and shoppers? Not that I can see. I personally feel much less comfortable in the CBD and on trains than I do at or around the Safeway.

    Are Safeway/Woolworths doing the wrong thing selling these guys alcohol? Not particularly. These customers have a right to buy drinks. I suspect they are not made welcome in most (if not all) pubs in the vicinity, which is an interesting contrast with the older Anglo and Greek blokes loitered at the TAB at the Punters Palace up the street, and the various crowds that spring up in the fancier (and not so fancy) bars over the weekends (not too mention the highly inconsiderate gallery openings/parties that spring up at random and often run to the wee smalls with, I suspect, no license at all).

    Am I just being politically correct? No, I am just saying these drinkers have as much of a right to be there as us big spenders. Good on Safeway for not being as discriminating as some.

    • 5 May 2009 at 4:07 pm

      As I state in the post, white middle class drinkers (ie at art gallery openings etc as you mention) can be as badly behaved as street drinkers in terms of public drunkenness. A separate issue is the begging. I don’t think it’s reasonable to be verbally and physically harassed for not giving them money. My taxes pay for welfare, which pays for their drinks, and I hate this. They should only be able to buy food and pay rent etc with welfare money. And I suspect that Safeway is not meeting its legal obligation to serve alcohol responsibly some of the time based on what I have seen.

  • 7 May 2009 at 10:31 am

    The issue of drunkeness on Smith Street goes far beyond a few people who congregate on a daily basis in the area outside the Safeway Liqour outlet and create havoc for the wider community.
    Issue one. This area has always been vunerable to narcotics distribution. Due to its proximity to two large housing estates in Collingwood and Fitzroy. The drinkers underly a far more sinister problem that of narcotics distribution. Their presence allows criminals to mask their activities and allows those people to give directions as to where to go to purchase the narcotics.
    Issue two.
    The area is a small business shopping precinct occupied by Australian owned small businesses. The current disfunctionality of the area caused by the uncontrolled alchol abuse is preventing the street from operating at its full potential. That is shoppers are frightened therefore customers do not come to the street. This forces small family businesses to close at worse or to operate for longer hours leading to family breakdown and illness. The small businesses in the area do not employ people from the surrounding areas as a result of the drinkers because they have no customers and therefore no requirment to hire labour.
    Point Three.
    The issue of drinking has been raised by the small business community for the past ten years and nothing has been done. At least ten of the drinkers have died and the support services that are required to address this problem are minimal. In other words the drinkers who are predominantly aboriginal and the small business community do not rate as a priority to our policy makers. There is more money to made out of maintaining the mess rather than fixing it. People such as Steven Jolly who play the racist card are political opportunists who are treading on the bones of dead aboriginies and bankrupt small business people.

    • 7 May 2009 at 10:41 am

      The relationship between traders, the community and the street drinkers is a complex one. I want to see more pragmatic policy action rather than politically correct posturing. Does anyone know if the drinkers are local residents, are homeless or whether they have homes somewhere else? This is something I would like to see BOSS take more leadership on but they seem invisible and indifferent.

  • 8 May 2009 at 8:57 am

    In answer to Brian.
    Boss and the small business community of Smith Street have been proactive on this problem for many years. They have been involved with The Victorian Small Business Commissioner, the Victorian Police, the local member of parliament Mr Richard Wynne, DHS, the the City of Yarra and the aboriginal community. Through these discussions a proposal has been constructed which would involve a community cultural centre, more support for people affected by alchol and more support for centres dealing with alcholism. All parties have agreed that these proposals are essential for our community and for those involved in the terrible cycle of alcholism. Mr Wyne has stated that he is prepared to fund these initiatives in his role as Minister for aboriginal affairs on one condition. That the City of Yarra enact local law eight. Local law eight will empower the Victorian Police to remove the alchol from the drinkers if required. The Yarra City Council has for the past two years refused to enact this law and is delaying the process of healing our community by its inaction. This has led to more people dying from alchol abuse and more small businesses going broke.
    The cultural-community centre is critical as is the implimentation of local law eight. The solution is there and is simple.

    As far as where do the drinkers come from. Some, that is four or five are local residents, some come from Preston and Reservior. The others come from Dandenong or are visitors to our city from Mildura, Swan Hill, Lake Tyers, Warnambool and from other places in Australia.

    A cultural center would create a positive enviroment for aboriginal people to meet and identify issues that are damaging their communities which need to be adressed. The implimentation of local law eight would allow the small business community of Smith Street to go about their business without the serious impediment of the drunkeness and violence that we have to endure on a daily basis. It would also alow us to live our lives without being subjected to polital opportunists such as Steven Jolly who infers that we are racists. I personally find this type of behaviour as offensive as it is our community that has identified to the government agencys the extent of the problem and it is our community that experiences the pain and suffering of the people who are affected by alchol abuse.
    I leave you with a question. Is it fair that the small business owners of Smith Street should be the ones that shoulder this terrible problem and why has it been concentrated to this particular area.

    • 8 May 2009 at 10:17 am

      Thanks for this response Diarmuid. I certainly have not read anything as helpful as this from council. Missing from the list of parties involved you outline above is the general public. I think many local residents feel like they have no way of presenting their opinions without being accused of racism. I’m coming from a utilitarian ‘do what you want but do no harm to others’ approach, and when I see other people being harmed by the street drinkers I want to see something done about their behaviour. I do wonder if all the local liquor retailers refused to serve them then they would move elsewhere. It makes me suspect that Safeway etc put profit ahead of social responsibility.

  • 9 May 2009 at 10:25 am

    I agree with you Brian that the residents are the key to resolving the problem. Unfortunately if we as small business operators publicly display our concerns about the alchol abuse we are targeted and assulted by the people who drink on the street. Our windows are spat on or sometimes smashed our cars are vandelised and our personal safty and that of our staff are put at risk.

    From 1998 until 2002 Smith Street was running an open heroin market. I was not until a residents action group was formed and a series of public meetings held that the government agencies resonsible for this debarcle acted to close the market down.

    The City of Yarra is currently proposing a redevelopment of the corner of Smith and Stanley Street. This development will involve increasing the size of the area where the drinkers meet and include some aboriginal art work. The proposal was met with a large number of objections by residents and businesses. The City of Yarra was able to circumnavigate those objections via the new planning laws which state that for projects under one million dollars the old requirments of objecting and applying to VCAT are no longer required. The residents and businesses have requested The City of Yarra to carry out a risk assesment of the project and alerted them to the issues regarding alchol abuse and the lack of a public toilet. As yet no risk assesment has been carried out and I gather the council is steam rolling ahead.

    I recieved a notice from Council

    Dear Resident

    Smith Street ‘Stories in the Street’ Event

    This letter is to inform you of the upcoming Smith Street ‘Stories in the Street’ Event to be held on the corner of Smith and Moore Street on Thursday 14 May 2009 from 2.00 pm to 8.00pm.

    Street Closure
    Moore Street will be closed from 11.00am tp 9.00 pm on Thursday 14 May 2009.

    All residents are welcome to attend the event.

    For further information
    Please contact Daniel Ducrou at City of Yarra on 9205 5107

    In very small print on the front of this notice.

    This tent is being run as a consultation activity for Smith Street Community Plan process. More information about the ‘Stories in the Street Tent or the Smith Street Community Plan process more broadly is available from Andrea Cook (Red Road Consulting) on 0409 803 063 or Daniel Ducrou (City of Yarra) on 9205 5107

    As far as Safeway being a socialy responsible citizen that is an interesting proposition. They have tightened up on the serving of alchol but local law eight is the overiding law that protects communities from the abuse that we are currently recieving on Smith Street. There is only one other council that has not enacted local law eight in Melbourne and that is City of Port Philip but they do not have the same problem that is occuring on Smith Street or in the City of Yarra during the night time at week ends.

    I hope all of this helps. I know it is a long story.

    • 9 May 2009 at 10:51 am

      It sounds to me that this redevelopment of the corner of Smith and Stanley streets without a public toilet is inappropriate. I’m very annoyed with council over its irrational idea that businesses want to run public toilets. The street drinkers are never going to get into these businesses to use the toilets and nothing will be achieved. I’m also disappointed with BOSS for not engaging with the public over issues like this.

  • 9 May 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Just to get you a bit more upset. Go to Boss was given $6000 by city of Yarra to set this up.

    What you have and are creating seems a lot closer to what our community requires. Social interaction, local information and awarness and local marketing in order to make our community stronger and healthier.

    Thank you for what you are creating.

    Diarmuid Hannigan

  • 5 June 2009 at 12:12 pm

    What I would like to know, are all out efforts futile in getting this issue addressed? The council don’t seem to commit to a formal strategy and ‘public consultation’ appears as a token way to appease community concerns or just do nothing at all. There’s no need to explain what I see every day, you’ve seen it all too. I consider myself a bleeding-heart liberal but come on folks, enough is enough. If this was being carried out by a group of non-indigenous teens, do you think the response would be the same? I have written to the council and Woolworths; even providing some intelligent suggestions on how to tackle the problem but alas (and not surprisingly) I received a generic ‘we’re working with community groups’ reply.
    The City of Yarra is living in a fantasy world and creating new public space is cementing the idea to the drinkers that it’s okay to continue what they’re doing and they’re welcome to do so.
    How about we invite Jolly to spend a day there observing the goings on? I’m positive it will have no effect on policy but hey, get them to live a day in a resident’s/shopkeeper’s shoes…

    • 5 June 2009 at 12:29 pm

      Agreed. There is far too much pandering to political values over pragmatic utilitarian values. We’re also being told nonsense by the council and the media. I read varying reports about the origins of the street drinks – some reports say many are homeless but another says many live in the Collingwood housing estates. If many of the drinkers live in the area and have access to local community services, I fail to see why so much extra effort needs to be made to accomodate them. I think the community centre idea has merit if it provides somewhere for homeless people to go, but the homelessness and the drinking on Smith St, while connected, can be dealt with separately. I want to see Safeway stop selling to them. If all the businesses stopped selling to them the violent and intimidating behaviour on the street would decline.

  • 3 November 2009 at 4:01 am

    g’day brian,

    be interested in reading yr opinion given that the law has now been passed.

    • 3 November 2009 at 12:08 pm

      The whole situation is a mess, and as usual the ALP machine at local and state level is useless at pragmatic policy decisions and prefers to make it an internal battle rather than solve the problem. The fundamental issue for me is behaviour, and causing harm to others is unacceptable. No excuse about race, culture or class can justify the intimidating behaviour of the street drinkers. The selling of alcohol to them by some local traders is an issue as much as the selling of drinks to drunks in licensed premises is an issue that needs to be managed better. I have no trust in Business on Smith St when it fails to communicate with the public yet claims to be proactive on this issue. I also have no trust for the spineless Greens on council who seem to change their policy values every day.

  • 4 November 2009 at 9:44 pm

    I have lived just behind Smith st for 9 years. Have regularly seen people refused service in Safeway. Have never felt threatend once, at any time day ever or night. Smile and say “sorry no change” and go about your day.

  • 10 November 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I’ve frequently witnessed alcohol bing bought by these people in Safeway. But they are too smart for Safeway. They either send in people who aren’t drunk to stock up, or they create diversions to allow the alcohol to be stolen.
    I witnessed one such event when an elderly drunk woman went on a rant at a checkout person, which distracted security, whilst another in the group walked out unckecked with a case of beer on his shoulder. When I told security and the manager of Safeway they weren’t interested enough to do anything about it.
    They are also too smart for the police. They have the 3 corners that they loiter at sorted with watchers, and when one spots a police car, they immediately signal to the others and they move on.
    I have been personally abused by people when I don’t give them money, or even if I am trying to walk past them on the pavement. I have been assulted by another trying to get money. I witness them pissing on the sidewalk. I witness them assulting and abusing each other.
    What’s REALLY racist is allowing these people to drink themselves to dealth.


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