Since it opened six years ago, the sobering center operated by Metropolitan Development Council in downtown has served as a place for chronic public inebriates to sleep off the effects of alcohol in a safe, controlled environment.
Before it was established, street alcoholics found passed out in doorways or on park benches were often transported by paramedics to emergency rooms, an expensive process for people who generally were not in need of that level of medical response.
MultiCare Health System and Franciscan Health System, which operate the hospitals in town, agreed to be major funders for the center, since in the long run it reduces their costs by keeping these individuals out of their emergency rooms.
The center is facing a funding challenge. Metropolitan Development Council President Mark Pereboom discussed it during the June 14 meeting of Tacoma City Council’s Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee.
The sobering center has an annual budget of $249,000. Pereboom noted MultiCare and Franciscan have indicated they plan to reduce their funding by 25 percent. This would make their contributions $85,000 each. “They have been wonderful supporters,” Pereboom remarked.
The city provided $15,000 to the program in 2011. The city provided no money this year because the score it received on its application for funding, 73 out of a possible 100, was considered too low. A document provided by city staff stated the program “has a history of poor performance with tracking and reporting output and outcome data.”
Linda Bremer, director of the city’s Human Rights and Human Services Department, pointed out that prior to Pereboom assuming leadership at MDC, it was not providing the needed reports to maintain city funding.
Pereboom said Pierce County is willing to increase its funding from $5,000 to $15,000. This leaves a gap of just over $79,000. MDC is requesting $65,000 from human services contingency funds controlled by the council to get through the next 12 months.
The center is located on Fawcett Avenue. It is open seven days a week from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. It has two individual rooms for women and a larger room for men, with a total capacity of 12.
The use rate has decreased. In 2007 it served 525 clients who used a total of 1,874 bed nights. Last year it was 373 clients using 1,807 bed nights.
Pereboom said the decrease is partly due to efforts to establish long-term housing for chronically homeless people, such as the city’s housing-first efforts. This has put street people into apartments, then assigns social workers to assist them in getting treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems.
Some who still use the center are the hard-core street alcoholics. The top 10 users make up 2 percent of the clientele, but use 57 percent of the bed nights. About 90 percent of clients sleep on the floors of the center less than 12 nights a year.
Since becoming president, Pereboom has sought out donations from the private sector. He has given more than 100 tours of the facility in the past year to potential donors. It has resulted in minimal donations. “It is not a center that gets a lot of philanthropy,” he remarked. “This is a difficult to serve population.”
In the past year MDC has provided $15,000 to the facility. Pereboom said if the funding gap is not filled, MDC may have to reduce other services it offers, such as its detoxification center. He noted this shares staff and costs with the sobering center.
Pereboom said MDC wants to continue conversations on other options to the sobering center. Some of the frequent clients are medically fragile and really need to be in nursing homes, he noted.
Some would benefit from housing with controlled access, a more structured living situation than placing these individuals into apartment complexes. Pereboom noted Catholic Community Services has an interest in such a facility. “There are opportunities to transition this program,” he remarked. “We are looking for solutions beyond the sobering center.”
Councilmember Victoria Woodards noted that many of those served at the center continue to drink and live on the streets. She expressed alarm that so few of the street alcoholics change their lives.
“In an urban setting, this kind of resource is necessary, unfortunately,” Councilmember Ryan Mello observed.
The committee is scheduled to discuss this funding request at its June 28 meeting. The hospitals were slated to provide their funding by the end of June. This timeline would not allow the full council to approve the request by the end of June. Pereboom said MultiCare and Franciscan would like some city commitment to go with their contributions. He said the contract with them could include a 90-day cancellation clause if the city does not provide money.