Austin Sobering Center treated extra patients during SXSW, Spring Break

Hayden Baggett

During spring break, Austin’s Sobering Center treated 44 people, exceeding their average weekly number of patients by almost 20 percent, according to data from the center.

The center, which began operations August 2018, opened to provide an alternative to being taken to jail or emergency rooms for those who are publicly intoxicated. The center’s executive director Rhonda Patrick said there are two reasons for the rise in patients at the center from March 17 to 24.

“The patient increases that we saw last week can be attributed to the weather getting better, so just more people were out in general,” Patrick said. “Also, we’ve been doing a lot of outreach with the police and EMS, so I think that we were starting to see some of that effort.”

Although UT’s spring break took place the week of March 17, Patrick said it is unlikely the spring break party mentality influenced the patient increase.

“There was a lot of other stuff going on, and Austin really isn’t a spring break party destination,” Patrick said.

According to data from the center, only 8 percent of Sobering Center patients have been college students since its opening, and Patrick said this could account for the high number of patients as well.


The week before UT’s spring break, the Sobering Center recorded a higher number of patients and exceeded its weekly average by more than 40 percent. Patrick said this increase in patients can be attributed to South by Southwest and St. Patrick’s Day.

“There were definitely more music and bar (events) happening at that time, so more people were drinking,” Patrick said.

The number of weekly patients at the center is expected to keep growing as the weather warms up and the center’s media campaign continues to expand, Patrick said.

Justin Newsom, assistant chief for the Austin Police Department’s Central Patrol Bureau, said APD noticed an uptick in the number of people it admitted to the Sobering Center during SXSW, but he could not say the same about UT’s spring break.

“During SXSW, we took more people to the center than we do in the normal time frame,” Newsom said. “It’s not surprising. The more people we have downtown, the more people are drinking.”

In past years, when UT’s spring break coincided with SXSW, Newsom said public intoxication arrests typically increased. Instead of these arrests, Newsom said APD welcomes the idea of taking more trips to the Sobering Center.

“It reduces the amount of time officers are off the streets by a large margin,” Newsom said. “The cost to the taxpayer in officer time … and the cost to the tax payer for a person to spend the night in the Sobering Center as opposed to jail is a much better bargain.”

Police lieutenant Robert Stock said though the UT Police Department did not see an increase in the number of people it transported to the Sobering Center in the past two weeks, the center is still a valuable resource for the community.

“It is a positive option for those intoxicated community members who do not have a sober or responsible party available,” Stock said in an email. “It doesn’t criminalize public intoxication, doesn’t overwhelm jail resources and it significantly decreases the officer’s time handling the intoxicated person.”