Austin sobering center prepares to open doors in August

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To explain why the city needs a sobering center, Justin Newsom, Austin Police Department assistant chief, describes a situation patrol cops see frequently.

A few months ago, when Newsom was working with patrol police on Sixth Street, police were called into a club and found a woman clearly intoxicated, refusing to leave.

Typically, Newsom said, police will send an intoxicated person home with a sober ride. A public intoxication charge means a trip to the jail, and that could take hours.

Newsom said the woman had no one to call.

“So she went to jail because there was no other option. That type of thing has been going on since the beginning of time here, because there’s never been an option otherwise,” Newsom said.

The Sobering Center of Austin—at 1213 Sabine St. in the building that used to house the Travis County Medical Examiner—is set to open Aug. 22, providing 40 cots for visitors to sober up.

According to Executive Director Rhonda Patrick, the center will be more than just a holding area for the intoxicated. As Newsom described, it will allow police and EMS workers to use their time more efficiently. It will provide an opportunity for those in need of programs and services to treat a serious issue, and it will keep jails free of people who do not need to be there.

A YEARS-LONG PATH TO OPENING

When Travis County  Judge Nancy Hohengarten was on the bench in her treatment court, she said she had many conversations with individuals charged with a Class B misdemeanor for public intoxication—a more serious charge for repeat offenders than the Class C offense for a one-time charge.

“What I realized through the process of the treatment court was that we would try to utilize incarceration as a method of persuasion, and it was largely ineffective,” Hohengarten said.

Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez first began discussing a sobering center in Austin in 2002 when she visited a similar facility in Phoenix. A feasibility study was done in Austin that year, but the effort lost steam.

Sixteen years after that initial study, Austin will open the 19th sobering center in the United States and the third in Texas. San Antonio’s center opened in 2011, and Houston’s facility—a model for Austin’s—opened in 2013.

The center is paid for through public funds via an interlocal agreement between Travis County and the city of Austin. The city funds the sobering center’s $1.7 million annual budget—although the center has a directive to seek grant and private funding money in the future—while the county provided the building and paid for $887,000 in renovations.

ADDRESSING MULTIPLE NEEDS

Individuals arriving at the sobering center come voluntarily, and they are not charged or fined for public intoxication. After they are dropped off by EMS workers or police, they have a conversation with a staff member. Staff can identify what led to the intoxication and what other issues the person may be experiencing, then place the visitor in services or connect the individual with a care management team.

According to Dr. Stephen Strakowski, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Dell Medical School, people will often seek help for an alcohol addiction when they have hit bottom, and the sobering center can “change the type of conversation” the visitor has about alcohol.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who co-sponsored a 2014 resolution to develop the center, said serving both the one-time visitors and those with serious substance abuse issues will be vital.

“Neither of those groups are well-served in a jail setting,” Tovo said.

Because of the center’s public health benefits to the community, Patrick pushes back when she hears it called a “drunk tank.”

“It lessens the severity and the chaos and havoc that hazardous, high-risk, disordered substance use causes, not just for individuals but also for communities,” Patrick said. “ I always try to be really clear with folks—I don’t describe it that way.”

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Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. He graduated in 2011 from Boston University and worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in January of 2018.
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