Austin-Travis County Sobering Center taking in less people, seeing more severe cases during pandemic

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When businesses shut down earlier this spring, so did The Austin-Travis County Sobering Center. It closed for over a month and reopened in mid-May.

Then, in June, the center got a new executive director, Laura Sovine. She immediately got to work. While the center was taking in fewer people, she saw an opportunity.

“COVID-19 really gave us the silver lining of we’re slow, we’re not overwhelmed and slammed with 25 drunk people in a room so we can think,” she said. “Let’s think about what do they need, do we know how to get that, is it available in the community? A lot of times it’s not, but we can work on finding that. We’ve kept someone as long as six days and put them on a bus to Tyler because there wasn’t an option here.”

With no, bars, no parties, no South By Southwest, no Austin City Limits, intake was nearly cut in half from a typical August. Sovine said it was down from around 250 last year to just 131 this year. Since the pandemic started, August has been the center’s busiest month.

Despite a drop in people ending at the center, Sovine said there was a trend they were noticing.

“During COVID, we’ve really seen the acuity of the patients go up, and what that means is the cases are more severe even though we’re seeing fewer people,” she explained.

Drop-offs from Sixth or Rainey streets fell, but the center continues to treat around the same number of people experiencing homelessness.

“I don’t think it’s a new problem I think it’s just a problem that we have visibility into now which COVID has really stripped away a lot of curtains,” Sovine said.

Sovine said they’re building partnerships with local groups to focus on long-term care.

“We’ve actually changed our business model to allow for a little bit more spending time with our clients and trying to find access to long-term care rather than just sobering them up and turning them back out,” she said.

When it comes to referrals, they have partnered up with several community organizations including the Downtown Austin Alliance, Downtown Austin Community Court and Integral Care. If they get a call, the center’s staff is then able to go pick up people in need in the center’s van.

“Let’s use this time where everything has slowed down to start problem-solving rather than just band-aiding,” she said.

Sovine said things are slowly starting to pick back up. At present, due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, they are only using 10 beds compared to the 40 they normally use. Sovine said they could soon be expanding the bed capacity if there is a need.

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