New Sobering Center Gives Intoxicated People An Alternative To Jail Or The Hospital

Aug 20, 2018

The Austin-Travis County Sobering Center is a nondescript three-story building on Sabine Street in downtown Austin. Starting Oct. 1, police and EMS will be able to bring intoxicated people in 24 hours a day instead of taking them to a jail cell or a hospital bed.

“So, you come in, you sober safe and you leave safe,” Executive Director Rhonda Patrick said Monday on a tour of the space.

The sobriety center is the result of a county-city partnership. Travis County owns the building and spent $887,000 renovating it. The City of Austin will spend $1.7 million a year on operations. Patrick said the hope is that by diverting people from jails and emergency rooms, the center will eventually be a cost-saver.

The center will have separate dorms for men and women. The women's dorm will have eight beds, while the men's will have 32.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

There’s still work to do. There are no mattresses yet on the green, plastic sleigh beds in the center's two dorms – one for men, one for women. The center is still being set up for its soft opening Thursday, when it will begin operating part-time through the weekend.

Clients will have access to the first floor, where there’s a waiting room with several chairs. Paramedics will be in an intake area to identify people based on their level of intoxication – Level 1 requires vital checkups every 15 minutes; a person who is classified as Level 3 can go several hours without a check-in.

The two dorms will eventually have beds: 32 in the men’s dorm and eight in the women’s.

Executive Director Rhonda Patrick says the center will eventually save the city and the county money by diverting people from jails and hospitals.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

“They’ll either lay down if they can lay down,” Patrick said. “If not, we have two recliners that we can bring in here and sit them up.”

A small hallway separates the dorms. Staff can keep an eye on the dorms from an observation area. There are granola bars for snacks. Water and Gatorade is offered in red Solo cups.

“Sometimes when people are intoxicated it’s really hard for them to open a bottle,” Patrick said. “So, a wide cup is helpful.”

Between the intake area and the dorms are two private rooms for meetings with counselors. Once clients have sobered up, they can discuss their situation: Is this a one-time incident? Is this an ongoing problem?

"So we can determine whether or not this person needs some help with some referrals, some treatment, whatnot,” Patrick said.

The Austin-Travis County Sobering Center will operate from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., Aug. 23-25, before opening 24/7 in October.