The sobering station is an oft-used tool that allows police to get severely drunk people off the street

Just after 12:30 a.m. on a Thursday, police responded to a report of a man lying in the middle of a busy street, East Burnside Street near Southeast 165th Avenue.

Officers found a 46-year-old Portland resident too drunk to stand. They helped him to the sidewalk and asked what he was doing.

"Shut the (expletive) up," the man responded.

According to a police report, that's all the man would offer, aside from the fact he had finished three-quarters of a fifth of vodka.

They asked him his address; same answer.

His phone number: same answer.

Officers took him into protective custody, citing the key phrase that allows them to do so -- "unable to care for himself" -- and transported him to the Central City Concern Sobering Station, a safe place for people who are extremely inebriated, to the point they're behaving recklessly in public, to sober up.

For police who answer such calls for a large portion of the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, the sobering station is a way to get people off the street who aren't necessarily committing a crime, but who are at serious risk for getting hit by a car, starting a fight or passing out in a public place.

Last year, the sobering station saw more than 8,400 admissions; law enforcement brings three-quarters of that, said Sarah Goforth, senior director of integrated behavior healthcare for Central City Concern.

Gresham Police Sgt. Claudio Grandjean said the sobering station, which is connect to the Hooper Detoxification Stabilization Center, is the best option to deal with severely drunk people -- usually homeless people who drink a lot, people who drank too much and can't find their way home or combative drunk people thrown out of bars and onto the street.

Without the station, police only have a disorderly conduct charge to detain a drunken nuisance, but that only works if police can name a victim, Grandjean said.

For example, at 11:56 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Hookah Lounge on Southeast Stark Street, police responded to a report of a 21-year-old man refusing to leave, according to a police report.

He was pulling off his pants and "acting in a strange, out-of-control manner," the report read. "I'm trying to be a unicorn," he told police.

In that case, Grandjean said, there's no easily identifiable victim; he didn't attack anybody, he was a nuisance to everybody.

"You have to have someone at least say, 'He alarmed me,' " Grandjean said. "If you don't have that, you have to take him to detox."


Central City Concern's Sobering Station was born out of a need among city and county law enforcement, hospitals and detox service providers and emergency medical responders.

"Oregon statute is very clear: people who are incapacitated and at risk of harming themselves or others are to be taken to a treatment center or the police department," Goforth said. "We all agree what we don't want to have happen is have drunk people die in jail."

So Central Community Concern, already running an addiction treatment facility, took on the sobering station, staffed with emergency medical technicians who monitor people and give them water and snacks until they're ambulatory, which usually takes around 4 to 6 hours.

"We are deferring a lot of people from the police departments and emergency rooms," Goforth said. "The reality is the police departments didn't want (to operate) it, no matter how much they could be compensated (to do so). They didn't want it at all. ... They said, how much does it take (for you to operate it)? We'll find it for you.

"It is a big public safety service."

Their budget this year is $1.36 million from donations, foundation grants and payments from law enforcement that use the facility. Multnomah County pays for admissions from the Gresham Police Department, said Kathy Pape, communications manager for Central City Concern.


The facility, about 16 miles west of Gresham in inner Southeast Portland, wouldn't allow The Outlook inside, citing privacy rules.

Police say it smells like urine and vomit -- as you'd expect, they said, from a place whose clientele are all like the man found at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday at the corner of Southeast 181st Avenue and Southeast Stark Street, who was lying on the sidewalk in his own urine. Emergency medical services checked him out and said he was medically OK to go to the facility.

When people get to the facility, EMTs who staff the station -- up to five during the peak admissions times, 10:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m., Pape said -- take their vitals and make sure they don't need to go to the emergency room. Then they lock up people's property and shoes and send them to one of two men's sobering rooms, the women's sobering room, or one of four safety rooms. Staff monitor the rooms from a central station.

A staff member described the sobering rooms as large, with a mostly private bathroom -- no door for safety reasons -- and a table with stools. They're given unlimited water and oatmeal, soup, crackers or snacks to eat.

In the safety rooms, about 4 feet by 10 feet, there's just a toilet for safety reasons, the staff member said. Those people, usually violent, only get water, no food, until they calm down enough to be moved to a large room.

"Police like the safety rooms -- they'd like 10, but three is fine," Goforth said. "You have to keep an eye on those people, so you almost have to staff them one-on-one."

If the three rooms are filled up, police have to take the people to jail. At 10:51 p.m. on March 8, police took a 29-year-old Portland woman to the facility after they found her lying on the ground at Northwest 12th Street and Overlook Avenue. She said she didn't know where she was and was combative with police as they took her into protective custody. She couldn't be admitted to the station because there were no safety rooms available. She went to jail.


Goforth said there's no rhyme or reason to admissions. Trends in police reports show officers deal with most sobering holds between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and drinking holidays always see a boost.

"Holidays are big deals for us in sobering," Goforth said. "We have to put more staff on."

And the staff sees regulars. Grandjean can still remember the name of a man who went to the facility so frequently that police defaulted to taking him to the station, where staff greeted him by name.

"Some people, because they've been there so often, it's almost like hotel sobering," Goforth joked.

But, she added, since it's connected to the Hooper Detoxification Stabilization Center, the station also does interventions, giving people the opportunity for medical detoxification and alcoholism treatment.

"It's a public-safety service," Goforth said. "Some people go to sobering and say, 'Oh my god, I ended up in the drunk tank.' ... I'm never going there again. That's prevention."

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