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San Antonio's Frontline of Addiction: The Sobering Unit

David Martin Davies
At the San Antonio Sobering Unit a man sleeps after being brought in by police as a public intoxicant

“A down and out” – that’s the term police use for someone who is passed out in the street, typically from too much alcohol. Each day there are dozens of these “down and outs” that San Antonio police respond to.

Each time, the officers make a choice. Do they take the person to jail or someplace else? In San Antonio, officers have the option to drop the person off at the Sobering Unit -- also known as San Antonio’s Drunk Tank.

It’s Friday afternoon in downtown San Antonio, and a police officer brings in another P.I. – a Public Intoxicant.

As he’s being questioned the handcuffs are taken off the man who we won’t name. He’s wobbly on his feet. He can barely converse. He’s wearing a black T-shirt with an image of Mr. T and the words “Shut Up Fool.” The police found Mr. T passed out at a bus stop.

This is the Sobering Unit at the Roberto L. Jimenez M.D. Restoration Center – a publicly funded detoxification and substance abuse treatment facility.

First a medical technician checks the man's blood alcohol level.

“I need you to blow into this breathalyzer please. Blow real hard – real fast. Perfect!”

Next Mr. T’s blood pressure and other vitals are checked. Then, Drug Councilor Justin Johnson asks him to go lie down.

JJ: Just do me a favor Bubba -- just take a little nap for me, and I’ll call your brother in a few hours to pick you up. I just need you to sober up a little bit.

Mr. T: Can you call him?

JJ: I’ll call him but I need you to take a little nap first.

Mr. T: What’s his number?

JJ: You’re going to tell me that in a little bit.

Mr. T: I don’t know his number -- you don’t know his number ... we need to know his number.

JJ: We’ll figure that out once you take a little nap. I need you to sober up a little bit first.

The Restoration Center is on Frio Street west of downtown San Antonio, between the homeless campus Haven for Hope and the Bexar County Magistrates Court. It straddles two worlds – one that helps those struggling with addiction and the other that deals with the police.

Mr. T could have been charged with public intoxication and taken to the magistrates and then the county jail. This would have been costly and time consuming for the arresting officer, the court and the jail.  Officers say they appreciate having the option to take non-violent public intoxicants to the Sobering Unit. They are here for less than 20 minutes, and then they are back on the beat.

But Johnson says it’s not only alcohol abusers that come through the door.

“We get our meth and our heroin users and our pill poppers and stuff like that but primarily it's alcohol and kush,” he said.

Kush is the street name -- along with K2, Spice and more -- for synthetic cannabinoid.  It's a cheap drug sold in cigarette form that’s a favorite with many homeless people. Its effects are unpredictable and dangerous. When the police bring in a Kush user, Johnson says they are frequently in a zombie-like state but can have violent outbursts.

“We have seen an increase of Kush use in the past few months,” Johnson said.

Since the Center opened in 2008, police have dropped off over 50,000 intoxicated individuals. The Center says this is saving the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Med tech: Hold still so we can get your blood pressure please.

P.I: You already did it.

Med tech: No.

P.I.: Twice – You weren’t paying attention. I pay attention.

Med tech: Listen you need to calm down a little bit, okay?

P.I.: [Growl]

One after another, police officers drop off people who need to sober up. By Friday evening, the Center is almost half full.

The Sobering Unit is basically one big bare room. For the men there are 13 mattresses with clean white sheets spread out on the linoleum floor. They’re arranged in two rows. This way Johnson and the staff from behind a front desk can constantly monitor the guests.

“Keep them in eyeshot -- make sure they’re safe. People under the influence are not fighting with each other – not fighting with staff,” Johnson said.

Also there are three beds to the side behind a curtain for the women who come in.

Frequently the room is full, and it can get noisy.

“Snoring and farting. We like snoring -- then we know you’re breathing.” Johnson said.

A doctor and nurse are on site in case there is a medical emergency. And tonight there is one.

“Sir, you want to sit down here on the stretcher?”

A homeless person who had been brought in for alcohol abuse went to lie down and began having severe chest pains. The paramedics were called, and he was taken to the emergency room.

Had he been out on the street that night, who knows if anyone would have made that 911 call to save his life.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi