- Associated Press - Monday, August 11, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - The first time Jessica Sharon landed at the Houston Center for Sobriety, she was too drunk and strung out on drugs to remember arriving.

She woke up bleary-eyed and confused, surprised to be resting, unshackled, on a firm cot in a quiet warehouse in the shadow of Minute Maid Park; this was decidedly not jail.

Like many of the roughly 7,000 other admissions at the sobering center since it opened 16 months ago, she left fairly quickly the next morning, grateful to have dodged jail time but not quite ready to accept offers to get her into detox.

When Mayor Annise Parker opened the center at 150 N. Chenevert St. last year, the idea was to cut police costs and reduce recidivism, creating a place other than jail for those whose only crime is public intoxication. Prior to the center’s opening, police were making about 17,000 arrests a year in Houston for public intoxication, racking up between $4 million and $6 million in police costs.

The sobering center has reduced that number significantly: From June 2013 to June 2014, Houston police booked just shy of 2,500 people on public intoxication, according to sobering center numbers. The center admitted more than double that number during the same time period.

Sharon is among those who have come back to the center for help, weeks or even months after declining more services.

For more than a decade, she has been battling crystal methamphetamine and alcohol addictions that seemed impossible to beat. Stretches of sobriety were eclipsed by hazy weeks spent high or drunk, often both.

Months after her stay at the sobering center, the 32-year-old hit her “grace of God” moment. She called her recovery coach at the sobering center and asked for help. Then, she came back.

“I’m honestly terrified because there have been other times where I’ve gotten sober and thought I was done and then I relapsed,” Sharon told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/X0bXZH). “But it takes what it takes and eventually, it just clicks. I hope this is when it’s going to happen. I have all the resources I need.”

Officials said the sobering center is still not being used to its full capacity, but the numbers should pick up as more jurisdictions turn to the facility. In April, Metro, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, constable precincts and University of Houston police started dropping off intoxicated people at the location.

The center started with a roughly $4 million contract with the city. Last month, council gave the center $1.2 million more out of a health waiver to expand services at outpatient recovery clinics. It’s part of an effort to make the center not just a glorified “drunk tank,” but also a place for people with addiction problems to connect with long-term treatment.

“Is it a cure-all? Is it the silver bullet for everything? It’s not,” said City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, one of the original backers of the recovery center idea. “But an intoxicated person a year ago would have been taken to jail and put through the bureaucratic system, and they probably wouldn’t have left with the help they need.”

Houston is one of just 10 or so U.S. cities - San Antonio included - with a partially or completely local or state government-funded sobering center. Most are spread out along the West Coast, from Seattle to Portland to San Diego. Another 20 to 25 cities are now considering the model, said Shannon Smith-Bernardin, deputy director of San Francisco’s sobering center. She is studying the growing number of sobering center models and their potential cost savings for her graduate school dissertation.

“There is no one definition of a sobering center right now - they all offer different services and programs,” Smith-Bernardin said. “But we know it’s becoming a trend.”

On a Thursday morning in July, the Houston Center for Sobriety is quiet, save for a drunk man HPD has just dropped off. A little unsteady on his feet, he’s greeted by staff at the back door who have him empty his pockets and let him know how the center works.

Next, a nurse or medical assistant will take his vitals. If someone shows signs of alcohol poisoning or other serious medical conditions, recovery center staff arranges for them to go to the hospital. If someone is aggressive or belligerent, the person goes back with HPD to jail.

The ebb and flow of arrivals follows what one might expect: weekends are busiest.

The center sees all types of people, from the homeless to college kids to business executives. From April 2013 to June 2014, 36 percent of those admitted at the sobering center were homeless. Many were one-time visitors, but another 186 people accounted for 1,263 visits, the center’s repeat clientele and often those with serious addiction problems.

It’s that population the center is hoping to help with the added funding and new partnerships with treatment centers. This spring, staff started an 18-month program to help clients with addiction issues connect with services, like detox and transitional housing, while staying in touch with a recovery coach at the sobering center. Many of the recovery coaches have struggled with addiction and know what clients are facing.

The idea is not to let someone struggling with addiction get stuck on a detox wait list and give up on getting clean, operations director Leonard Kincaid said.

“One of the things we realized when we started this was an opportunity to intervene, to help people who come back and have nowhere else to go,” Kincaid said. “We are experts at caring for people with addiction. That’s what we do best.”

But the center can only do so much. Kincaid said one of its greatest struggles is connecting clients with mental health resources. There simply aren’t enough in Houston, he said. Transitional housing, too, is among the voids sobering center officials often have trouble filling.

Sharon is among the clients taking advantage of the 18-month program. After detox, she went to a local treatment center for people with substance abuse problems. It’s not easy, but this time she’s “not beyond hope,” she said.

Next, Sharon will look for transitional housing, a sober environment where she can start looking for work and putting the pieces of her life back together.

She has three sons who have been in and out of foster care as she gets help. The past few months have not been easy, she said, but they have been clean.

One constant has been her sobering center coach, who checks in with her once a week.

“I have hope today,” Sharon said. “That’s a beautiful thing, because I haven’t always had hope.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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