Austin Sobering Center serves hundreds since August opening

Meghan Nguyen

The UT Police Department has booked more than 20 students for public intoxication in the past year. The Austin Sobering Center has been open for more than a month now hoping to lessen that figure, serving as a safe place for police or EMS to take those people without putting them in jail or sending them to the emergency room.

The center has seen 166 patients since its opening at the end of August. Sixteen of those patients were brought in by UTPD, and 26 Austin-area students have been admitted by law enforcement or EMS. 

“The majority that we’ve taken have not been students, and even if they are students, then the Sobering Center is still concerned about following up and helping the student get the right support,” UTPD Chief David Carter said.

The Austin Sobering Center opened at the end of August on a trial run operating from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekends. As of Oct. 1, the center is officially open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Our community has needed the Sobering Center for quite a while, and I am grateful its doors are now open,” said Lori Holleran Steiker, a professor of addiction, recovery and substance use at the School of Social Work, in an email. “The Center has a much greater chance of engaging our UT students in thinking differently, changing behaviors and utilizing supports rather than aiming to stay out of trouble.” 

The Austin Sobering Center anticipated that 75 percent of people admitted will be “one-time users” such as college students and festival attendees. The other 25 percent were expected to be “repeat users,” such as people with chronic substance abuse problems.

“Most of the folks that come in through here are residents of Travis County, and we’ve only had a few people who are repeaters or overall substance users,” said Rhonda Patrick, executive director of the Austin Sobering Center.

With an operational budget of $1.7 million from the City of Austin, the Sobering Center aims to cut the times associated with those bookings to help make law enforcement and EMS more efficient. 

“When we take an intoxicated person to jail, it takes a matter of minutes,” Carter said. “We’ve saved a significant amount of time because if officers are not spending their hours going through a laborious booking process, then they’re back out on the street helping out our student community.”

Though the Sobering Center was originally set to serve people who had consumed too much alcohol, the scope of the center was recently expanded to include people who struggle with drug use as well, Patrick said.

“If we’re just ignoring those behaviors, we’re not really intervening in any way, shape or form to really talk with people about how what they’re doing is dangerous,” Patrick said.

Allyson Todd, Students for Sensible Drug Policy co-president, said the Austin Sobering Center would help students feel more comfortable in taking their health into their own hands. 

“Having centers where people can safely stay during their periods of drug use is so important because it reduces the likelihood of harm to their health because medical staff will be present,” said Todd, international relations and global studies and Latin American studies junior. “The Sobering Center … places the emphasis on the humanity of the person instead of criminalizing them.”