Fresh Breath

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/05/2003

It's when the shakes start, sometime after midnight or on a Sunday afternoon, that Michael McGlaulin sets out to score a bottle of "cheap whiskey" or what merchants call "wine for the homeless."

It's a stiff brew with a sharp aftertaste. But unlike other cocktails, this one has a few distinct advantages - it's among the cheapest on the market, it's available anytime, any day, and in addition to freshening breath, according to manufacturers, it helps fight gingivitis.

"I drink the big bottle every day," says McGlaulin, 55. He explains one recent night, while drinking on the steps of a church, that he steals it or panhandles to buy it. "I can't stand the taste, but it carries me over; it prevents the seizures."

In recent months, with more homeless on city streets, police say downtown convenience stores have seen a spate of thefts. The most stolen item: mouthwash. At $3.99 for a 50-ounce bottle, Listerine and similar brands pack a punch - with as much as 27 percent alcohol content, compared with about 12 percent for the typical bottle of wine. Another perk: drinking it is legal. Police can't arrest anyone for drinking mouthwash in public.

In response to the thefts and abuse, the owner of three 7-Eleven stores in the area decided to cut the number of brands he sells and keep the remaining bottles behind the counter. At the new Walgreen's on Summer Street, managers and clerks say they keep watch whenever people who are believed to be homeless enter the store.

And at several downtown CVS stores, signs next to the bottles of mouthwash read: "Selected products have been protected by the manufacturer against theft."

But the thirsty are rarely swayed from their objective. "They don't care - the signs don't mean anything to them," says Michelle Jimenez, a cashier at the CVS on Summer Street. "They either take a bottle and walk out, or they pay. We can't not sell it to them."

When the homeless walk into the 7-Eleven across the street, where the franchise owner estimates he has lost tens of thousands of dollars in thefts at his store this year, the clerks are told to try to dissuade them from buying mouthwash. "I say, `Try to steer the customer away,' " says J.R. D'Avila, the manager of the 7-Eleven on the corner of Arch Street. "The stuff's just not good for them."

However, health officials and outreach workers, who say they've seen a rise in the abuse of mouthwash by homeless alcoholics in recent years, argue it would be dangerous for stores to refuse to sell them mouthwash, especially on holidays or during the stretch between Saturday night and Monday morning when the state's liquor stores are closed.

Without a fix for too long, alcoholics suffer withdrawal - and some die from it. Studies of Boston's homeless population over the past decade have shown that more suffer seizures and die when they can't get a drink.

A study of 14 homeless people who died between 1998 and 1999 found nearly all died on Sunday or early Monday morning, according to Healthcare for the Homeless, the study's author. Three years earlier, a study of 1,700 emergency calls from shelters to police found that 25 percent of the calls were for seizures, with 75 percent of the calls on a Sunday or Monday.

"There's really a tough ethical dilemma," says Dr. James O'Connell, president of Healthcare for the Homeless, adding that mouthwash does not have any more severe medical consequences than other alcohol. "There are no easy answers. The real problem is alcoholism. But from a harm-reduction point of view, it's better to let them drink Listerine than to have a seizure," which can cause brain damage.

The best solution, O'Connell and others said, is to get the person into a detox facility or substance-abuse program. But with more drug and alcohol abusers on the streets, there aren't enough beds.

The annual census of Boston's homeless, conducted earlier this month, found there are now about 6,200 men and women living on the streets, nearly double the number there were a decade ago. Combined with budget cuts, the increase has put huge pressure on agencies that help the homeless.

As Jim Greene prowls city streets in his job as the daytime outreach coordinator of the Pine Street Inn, the region's largest shelter, he now finds only one detox bed for every 10 people he finds who could use one - up from a bed for every three people he met a few years ago. "The people who drink Listerine are the people most gravely in need," he said. "These are end-stage alcoholics who are in the most need of our attention."

They have gotten the attention of local business owners and police, who raised the issue of mouthwash theft and abuse at a recent gathering of the Downtown Crossing Association, a local business group, and at a meeting last month of city officials, emergency personnel, and homeless advocates.

The officer often called to "clean up the mess," as he said, is Jim O'Malley, who for decades has spent the evening hours patrolling downtown. He often finds homeless alcoholics passed out with an "overwhelming" stench of mouthwash seeping through their pores. "It's sad people can be that desperate," he said.

One of the men he occasionally finds inebriated on mouthwash is Dorchester native Donald Sullivan, who on a recent afternoon sat at the entrance of a Downtown Crossing T station guzzling a newly bought bottle from CVS.

"It tastes horrible, but it helps keep me warm," says Sullivan, 39, noting he's drinking the yellow CVS brand, the most potent for the price. "You have to do what you have to do."

Another man, a former painter named Mike, says he sometimes has to haggle with store clerks or ask passersby to get him a bottle. Even though it "warps my brain a bit," caused him to tumble down a flight of stairs recently, and nearly got him thrown out of a shelter, the 50-year-old insists it's worth it.

"The truth is, it's easy to drink - and it makes the shakes go away," he said.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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