Free downtown Austin Sobering Center set to open in a month

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County’s new sobering center is set to open on Aug. 23, serving as a safe place for police or EMS to take people who are too intoxicated to sober up, without putting them in jail or sending them to the emergency room.

Proponents say it will save Travis County and the city of Austin money in the long run.

Medical Director of Dell Seton’s Emergency Department Dr. Christopher Ziebell says public intoxication is all too common in Austin and has led to packed emergency rooms.

“We see it 24 hours a day, unfortunately. That contributes to Emergency Department crowding, which leads to long waits in the waiting room,” Ziebell said, adding, “Typically, an emergency bed should turn over every two hours, so we should be able to fit 10 to 12 people a day through each emergency department bed.”

He continued, “A drunk person may occupy that bed for 16 or 18 hours while they metabolize their alcohol and try to get sober enough to where they can be safely released on their own, so that’s six to eight people who can’t use that bed.”

Dr. Ziebell realizes, however, that if those who are publicly intoxicated aren’t watched, they may try to drive, act out or become victims of violence.

“We definitely don’t want these folks to be endangered,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re getting what they need, but there are other places where they could get that done.”

Travis County and the city of Austin put up the funding to get the sobering center up and running.

At a commissioner’s court meeting Tuesday, the center’s director, Rhonda Patrick, told commissioners the board plans to diversify its funding moving forward, but does not plan to charge those who are treated there.

“I’m not happy with the fact that no, we’re not even going to try to collect,” said County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “If you’ve got enough money to go and get intoxicated wherever it is, then you have enough money to pay something.”

County commissioners also learned Tuesday that the center’s board of directors estimates 75 percent of people who enter the sobering center will be one-time users, likely college students, festival-goers or visitors attending conventions.

The other 25 percent, the board says, will be local residents who have issues with drug or alcohol abuse or homelessness, and may show up at the center more than once.

“I think that’s a part of the cost of doing business,” said Dr. Ziebell. “If you’re going to be in an entertainment environment, and if we’re going to be doing that no matter what, let’s do it in the most cost-efficient manner.”

Originally, the sobering center was only set to serve people who had consumed too much alcohol, however, the scope of the center was recently expanded to include people who have taken drugs, as well. 

“If we are only seeing people who are using alcohol, then we are missing a whole segment of the population that we do not intervene on,” Patrick said. “We’re the one place that we see everybody that’s using substances to the point of intoxication. We can figure out what’s going on and get people diverted in the way that they need to go, and that is a great financial, social benefit to our community.”

Patrick says the sobering center will help free up officers, because it will take much less time to check patients into the sobering center than it would to take them to the county jail.

The center will have a rule of only keeping officers for eight minutes or less during the patient check-in process, so they can get back to their patrols.

Dr. Ziebell says he’s talked to too many officers who feel limited in how much they can help people who are overly intoxicated, because the process for handling public intoxication currently takes too long.

“At 2 in the morning on a Saturday, they’ll see somebody come out of a bar, car keys in hand, all alone, staggering up the street,” he explained. “There are a limited number of police officers on the street at that time, and they have to make a conscious decision between, ‘If I go and arrest that person and take them to jail, it’s going to take me three hours to get them checked in, and now I’m leaving Sixth Street shorthanded, right about the time that the fights are going to break out.'” 

The center, located at 1213 Sabine St., will only take in people who are medically stable and aren’t acting violently. That includes people who need to be off of the streets so they don’t drive drunk or become victims of crime.

Patrick says in most cases, they won’t be charged or cited for public intoxication. The Sobering Center will provide them a place to sober up and get linked to any resources they may need.

The center is set to have a soft opening on Aug. 23. Through the remainder of August and September, it will be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. It will open for 24/7 care starting Oct. 1, in time for Austin City Limits. 

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