Austin Sobering Center opening doors this Thursday for weekend operations


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Sobering Center is set to open its doors on a limited basis Thursday, Aug. 23 before its official opening on Oct. 1. 

The center is designed to be an alternative to jail and emergency rooms for people who meet the legal definition of public intoxication, so they can sober up safely. 

The center isn’t a walk-in facility. Police or EMS will bring to the center people who are too drunk as long as the person isn’t showing combative behavior, in need of immediate medical attention or involved in another crime. 

“Eight minutes. That’s our goal. Eight minutes we want our law enforcement back on the streets. EMS back on the streets,” said Rhonda Patrick, executive director of the Austin Sobering Center.

In a tour Monday morning, Patrick explained how people brought to the facility will first be evaluated by the staff.

“They’re met by one of the paramedics here who get some basic information,” she said. “We have a basic triage to make sure there’s no underlying medical situation going on.” 

Brian Lynch, clinical services coordinator, said, “Screen out anybody that would be any acute head injuries, any trauma, anything that really needs more of an advance work up.” 

Once the staff determines what the person needs is simply time to sober up, they’ll take the person to a sobering room. 

There are two separate rooms — one for women and one for men. 

Patrick said, when someone’s ready to leave, “They have to leave with someone. They can’t just go out the door and walk down the street. We’ll call someone. We have a bus voucher for them. Or they can call a rideshare.”

However, before they can officially be discharged, Patrick said the staff will talk to that person about what happened.

“We want to do an alcohol or drug screen to determine if this is a person that this is kind of a ‘I didn’t plan well situation,'” Patrick said. “Or is this someone who’s actually having some difficulties and need some help, either with some education, referral or help finding some treatment.”

She said they’ll connect people to substance abuse support services.

“If they need treatment or other services, it’s not like here’s a piece of paper, call people,” she explained. “We will actually sit and make phone calls with them and really try, we want to do a warm handoff.”

Lynch said, “We actually have the ability to spend more time with them here. I work in an emergency department as well, too, and emergency departments, sometimes depending on how many patients you have there, your resources can be limited because other high priorities can be coming in.”

The center will open starting at 8 p.m. Thursday for weekend hours, which will be 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. 

Beginning in October, just in time for Austin City Limits, the center will be open 24/7.

The Austin Police Department said it made more than 2,700 arrests in 2017 for public intoxication.

Assistant Chief Justin Newsom said in an email, “This will potentially free officers up to be available for other opportunities such as violent crime initiatives and community engagement.”

Patrick told KXAN the center can also help lower the cost of taking care of an intoxicated person. 

According to Patrick, treating one person at the center would cost on average $102. If that person were to be booked into jail, she said, “We know that booking cost alone at the jail is about $154, and then if you add officer time at $62 an hour.”

If that person ends up going to an emergency room, Patrick said, “When you add everything up, $864 for an ambulance ride you’re looking at several thousand dollars just for one person.”

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