What is a sobering center?  Is one needed in Salem/Marion County?  Who would pay to build and operate it?  Where do first responders now take people needing sobering?

Currently our police officers, sheriff deputies, firefighters and paramedics have only two options for delivering individuals under the influence.  Jail or the Emergency Room.  Neither is a best practices option.  In Oregon, police are mandated to transport any at-risk publicly intoxicated person to “an appropriate treatment facility.” (ORS 430.399)  Police can take a person to jail if he or she has committed a crime or is violent or extremely belligerent.

Most frequently the choice is to deliver to the Emergency Room, often at Salem Hospital.  The ER is not designed to be a sobering center.   The costs to Salem Health are significant.  Costs mount for space, resources, staff time, stress, and often unpaid bills.   Chronic alcoholics often have no insurance or income to pay the $500 to $1000 bill for a visit. 

In other major Oregon cities there is a third option – a sobering center specifically designed and staffed to receive intoxicated individuals.  The sobering centers in Medford, Eugene, and Seattle are reportedly modeled after Portland’s Hooper Center, which was opened in 1973 by Multnomah County.  The Hooper Center is part of non-profit Central City Concern.  In addition to a short-term sobering center, The Hooper Center operates a 54 bed longer term detoxification and treatment program. 

A sobering center is a supervised, multi-celled, medically monitored holding area where people found publicly intoxicated can sober up safely, often staying only a few hours.  Discussion considering establishing a sobering center in Salem is in very early stages, involving the City of Salem, Marion County, and local organizations.

If a sobering center is established here, the Salem area will be joining a growing number of cities across the nation that are taking this step to save lives, reduce costs, and provide most appropriate responses for persons who have consumed too much alcohol or other drugs.  For example, in March, 2016 the Los Angeles County supervisors voted to open a sobering center “where emergency responders will be able to take dangerously intoxicated people, including those living on the streets….”

Typically people taken to sobering centers are “picked up by police due to their erratic and sometimes threatening behavior or by ambulance as a result of a 911 call.”  (L.A. Times, 3/22/16).  Persons are also delivered to sobering centers by friends and family members.      

Is a sobering center just an “extra” for a community, or might it now be a necessity?  Writing about the Hooper Center, Steven Nehl of The Oregonian wrote: “For 35 years Hooper’s small staff of medics and ex-addicts has offered a second chance to boozers bent on drinking themselves to death. When hard-core alcoholics go too long without drinking, their brains whip into overdrive.  Their hearts race more than 100 beats a minute; they grow anxious, sweat and vomit.  About a day after their last drink, they may hallucinate or suffer grand mal seizures.” (9/10/2008) 

Others admitted to sobering centers are people who got carried away while partying and got too inebriated to function.  Sobering center staff have called these “the weekend warriors.”  It is time for Salem to have a professional, safe site to deal with dangerously inebriated people, to take the stress off Salem Hospital ER, and to help our first responders.