News and Commentary

Los Angeles Adapts To Drunk Vagrants With ‘SOBER Unit’

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) recently launched a mobile sobriety unit to transport heavily-intoxicated vagrants from city streets and sidewalks to a short-term recovery center where they can sleep off their over-indulgence under the supervision of health professionals.

It is one way the city is adapting to its rapidly increasing homeless population. The one-year pilot program — called the Sobriety Emergency Response (SOBER) Unit — targets serial inebriates who have been costing taxpayers money with repetitive arrests and unnecessary visits to the emergency room. The SOBER Unit ambulance debuted in the Skid Row neighborhood, notorious for its estimated 1,777 unsheltered residents.

“When LAFD brings an inebriated patient to the ER they have to stay with them until they are admitted, often resulting in a six-hour wait,” Mayor Eric Garcetti explained earlier this month while unveiling the mobile unit. “That’s six hours an EMT (emergency medical technician) isn’t responding to other calls.”

“That scenario plays out hundreds of times a month often involving the same individuals,” he continued.

Paramedics now have the option of eliminating such futile red tape by calling on the SOBER Unit to respond to non-urgent matters involving the many chronic substance abusers strewn about Skid Row. LAFD receives more than 1,300 calls a day, with upwards of 90% in need of medical assistance.

The red rig blends in with the other emergency vehicles housed in the district’s local fire station. Staffed with a paramedic, a nurse practitioner, and a social worker, the unit patrols the area to identify perpetually intoxicated individuals as potential patients, then entices them to voluntarily admit themselves into the nearby David L. Murphy Sobering Center. There, they can detox — a process that usually takes six to 12 hours — then pursue further treatment. The facility has enough beds to accommodate up to 50 people at a time.

As the Los Angeles Downtown News reported:

Patients are offered towels and can take a shower. They are also given water and light snacks. The center has laundry facilities.

Once a patient sobers up, the staff seeks to connect him or her with long-term sobriety programs and other social services.

The sobriety center mostly treats patients for alcohol intoxication, however it has also taken in addicts strung out on crack, heroin and crystal meth.

“I talked to the people who staff the unit, and they told me some very heartfelt stories of people out in the street who were in tears,” said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas. “They couldn’t believe that this resource was there, and they were going to take them to the sober center — not to the hospital, not to jail, but to the sober center to get food, to start to detox and to perhaps find a pathway to housing.”

City and county officials have partnered with Exodus Recovery, a nonprofit that has been providing psychiatric and chemical dependency treatment services in Southern California for nearly 30 years. Exodus supplies the social worker and nurse practitioner that staff the SOBER Unit, and partners with L.A. County to operate the sobriety center, named after Exodus’ co-founder.

L.A. County also has contracts with Exodus to run mental health urgent care centers, which do not accept extremely drunk people. They are structured much like the sobriety center, and were established for similar purposes: divert people away from jails and hospital ERs, free up public safety officials to respond to other calls and save the taxpayers money.

Chief Terrazas expects the SOBER Unit program to expand, just like the homeless encampments that have been sprouting up all over Los Angeles.

“What we envision long term is an infrastructure of sobering centers throughout the city, paired with sober units to bring patients to those centers,” Terrazas said.

L.A. County has seen a 25% spike in homelessness between 2016 and 2017. In the city of L.A., the count increased 20%.

A coordinated governmental effort to update those statistics got underway earlier this week.

Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.

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