On the edge of downtown Austin, Texas, The Sobering Center occupies the first and second floors of a blocky building with cameras above the entrances. Ambulances pull up to the front, and police enter through the side.
Just past the lobby, the center’s paramedics evaluate intoxicated clients in a lab before admitting them to one of the single-sex dorms—large rooms with 24 green cots for clients to sleep in until they are sober. Behind a one-way mirror, a paramedic observes and types notes.
Once a client sobers up, typically after no more than eight hours, the staff asks a series of questions and provides resources on local recovery or rehab programs. Then they let the person go. No bills. No arrest record. No limit to how many visits a person can make.
More and more cities are opening sobering centers as an alternative to jails and hospitals to care for intoxicated people. The centers can provide relief to the healthcare system and police and give second chances to those struggling with addiction. But reducing the consequences associated with addiction could also reduce the chances an addict will change.
In 2003, San Francisco opened a sobering center for alcoholics. A second one, in a 1,200-square-foot tent on a city-owned parking lot downtown, will focus on people experiencing methamphetamine psychosis. From 2017 to 2018, 47 percent of psychiatric emergency room visits to San Francisco General Hospital were related to meth use.
In Austin, an incident of public intoxication can lead to a $1,400 emergency room bill, an $876 ambulance ride, or $55 to $97 in a police officer’s time for jail booking, according to The Sobering Center. Before the center opened, the city was trying “to utilize incarceration as a method of persuasion, and it was largely ineffective,” said Nancy Hohengarten, a county judge who is now a board member at the center.
The center has had about 3,500 client visits in the year and a half since it opened, interim executive director Danie Connick said. Given the multimillion-dollar cost of the caring for that many people in emergency rooms or jails, the $1.8 million dollars a year it costs the city to run The Sobering Center is a relative bargain.
A year in, a local consulting firm conducted a program evaluation. It found that 51 of the 1,605 patients who sobered there went into treatment for addiction afterward. Repeat clients were nearly three times as likely as first-timers to enter rehab: One person visited the center 14 times before seeking treatment.
Mark Shaw founded the Addiction Connection, a network of Biblical counselors and ministries aiming at helping addicts. He said he wouldn’t consider sobering centers a solution to addiction, but they do create opportunities for hope. “The addicted are helped in that they are kept alive in what can be a very serious and life-threatening situation,” he said. “The truth is that most addicts do not seek further help without some type of pressure from outside .… No consequences for the addict probably encourages more irresponsible behavior.”