Instead of spending the night passed out in public or locked in jail, intoxicated people at risk of endangering themselves or others could spend several hours sobering up inside a short-term sobriety center, which city officials hope to support in the city's 2019 budget.
The center would prevent police or EMS from sending nonviolent intoxicated people to emergency rooms and instead give them a bed and four to eight hours to sober up under the care of a team from Odyssey House, the community health organization focused on detox services and behavioral and medical health care.
When it comes to treating addiction and mental health care, “we know jail is not the right place,” New Orleans City Council Vice President Helena Moreno said at the council’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting Sept. 24. Intoxicated people occupying ER beds to sober up is “completely unacceptable,” Moreno said. “We can do so much better.”
A proposed “sobering center” could hold 20 beds and serve up to 80 people a day. Police or EMS would deliver a person to the center, where staff perform a triage to determine their care. People can only enter the center if they don’t have any warrants and if they’re not facing other charges related to police placing them into their custody. Otherwise, the center is pitched as a way to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system.
The open-area space would separate men and women with a wall between it. If people need additional detox treatment, Odyssey House would connect them to a medically supported detox program.
Lennon Wallace had only about $100 in his pocket when he heard that a new shelter on Gravier Street might have a bed for him.
Following a tour of the proposed space last week, Moreno tweeted that “it’s critical to explore creating a sobering center” in New Orleans. “This type of tool could save us [New Orleans Police Department] manpower hours while preventing unnecessary ER/jail use.
Odyssey House CEO Ed Carlson expects its annual cost of operation to hit roughly $700,000, and City Hall officials are likely to find money for it in the forthcoming 2019 budget.
Carlson anticipates the Council’s support and the support of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, “a lot of pieces of the puzzle coming together that would have a long-term impact.”
“I’ll put it down every time,” said Moreno, adding that the city’s tourism board and other agencies also should support the program.
“It's important for tourism to have some skin in the game in this” and to “find a way for them to invest so the city doesn’t get hit with the entire burden,” she said.
Advocates argue a sobriety center also could have significant cost savings in return, with potentially fewer people entering the criminal justice system and hospitals.
It’s unclear whether the program would be subject to the city opening up a request for proposals or be set up through a cooperative endeavor agreement between the city and Odyssey House.
Odyssey House also is renovating the former Bohn Ford building on South Broad Street, which is expected to open in February. That facility will expand its bed capacity to more than 180 beds.
Those services arrive in tandem with the opening of the city’s low-barrier homeless shelter, which admits non-sober people on the second floor of the former Veterans Affairs hospital on Gravier Street in downtown New Orleans. The 24-hour shelter will offer up to 100 beds with little to no barrier for entry, including no admission fees or sobriety tests. People entering the shelter also can access mental health and substance abuse services, as well as living and office spaces.
The committee also heard from advocates supporting court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment programs, which would support “people stuck in the revolving door” of the criminal justice system and hospitals, according to Healing Minds NOLA’s Janet Hays, and prevent law enforcement from effectively using the jail to house people with significant mental health needs because of the lack of available care.
Council President Jason Williams says those programs are “designed to get people treatment plans that work so they don’t wind up on the streets, or homeless, institutionalized or incarcerated.”