Starting in May, Alameda County will have a new program to handle substance abusers, fulfilling the long-time dreams of Berkeley activists and city officials.
May 4, 2007, is the scheduled opening date for the county’s first detox and sobering centers, which will be located on the grounds of the Alameda County Medical Center’s Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro.
“Berkeley really did its part as a community to get this ball rolling,” said city Director of Health and Human Services Fred Medrano.
“A lot of the concerns came out of a group from the Telegraph Area Association working with my staff. We wrote up a report and took it to the county and other stakeholders, and it’s really gratifying to see that it got results,” he said.
“Telegraph Area played a big part in bringing everybody together,” said Barbara Becker, the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care program specialist who has been spearheading the project.
“We’ve been pushing for this for years,” said City Manager Phil Kamlarz. “It’s been one of the missing cogs in our whole health care system. It will be a big asset for an issue we face on a day-to-day basis.”
“Blessed be!” said Osha Neumann, an attorney who advocates on behalf of Berkeley’s homeless population. “It’s about time.”
The new facilities will be housed in existing buildings at Fairmont that will be specially renovated to meet the needs of the programs.
Schematic drawings for the project are already in hand, said one county official, and the project will go to bid soon with construction to start in January.
In addition to the $2 million annual appropriation from Measure A funds, an additional $150,000 has been earmarked for the program in the federal spending program Congress will take up after the November elections.
But it’s all coming late, officials acknowledged.
“You’d expect that in a county as progressive as we are that we would’ve already had a detox program for low-income people,” said Medrano.
While there are plenty of programs available for those with money and good insurance, police and emergency intervention personnel all too often are forced to send those incapacitated by alcohol and other drugs to drunk tanks or emergency rooms, Medrano said.
Both alternatives can be much more expensive than treatment in a specially dedicated facility.
Asked for estimates of how many people from Berkeley might be rerouted to the new facilities, Medrano cited a study that compared rates of arrests in Alameda County cities for violation of Penal Code Section 647f, which makes it a misdemeanor to be so intoxicated in public that one is a danger to self or others, who obstructs streets or sidewalks.
By that standard, Berkeley ranks fourth in the county, with an average of 38 monthly arrests between July 2005 and January of this year.
Oakland was highest with 123, followed by Hayward with 67 and Alameda with 66.
Neumann said those figures only represent the tip of the iceberg.
“I run a citation defense clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center with Boalt Hall students as advocates, and we deal with a whole range of citations that result from alcohol and other substance abuse problems,” Neumann said. “Most of them are ‘quality of life’ citations for offenses like trespassing and possession of an open container that don’t show up as a 647f.”
Instead, the offenses fall under the Berkeley Municipal or the state Business & Professions codes, he said.
Another, more revealing, figure cited by Medrano might be the 40 percent of Alameda County’s chronically homeless people who make Berkeley their home base.
“Many of these people are dependent on alcohol or drugs, and many suffer from mental illness or disabilities,” he said.
Finding a place for the program proved difficult.
Alameda County Alcohol, Drugs & Mental Health Services Director Dr. Marye L. Thomas outlined the problems in a letter to the March 24 meeting of the Measure A Oversight Committee:
“Despite the overwhelming broad community consensus that detox/sobering is a critical community need, there has been equally overwhelming opposition to having it located in any local community.
“Despite the community’s expressed desire for a north county site, the only acceptable location we have found is on county-owned property,” and at a location that would increase transport costs.
“The closest it ever got to Berkeley was North Oakland or Emeryville,” said Kamlarz. “Still, it’s closer than where we have to go now, like San Mateo County.”
Neumann said that to find a program that would take one of his clients—a man who really wanted to kick his alcohol habit—“I had to drive all the way up to Roseville. There was no place else to go.”
The new program will utilize a three-pronged approach, incorporating a “sobering station,” an in-patient detox program and a transportation system using mobile vans to bring patients to the program.
The sobering station “is something like a drunk tank but in a health care environment so that patients can sober up and be assessed to get them into the right resources,” Medrano said.
Detox will be a longer, three-to-five-day inpatient program to enable substances abusers to clear their systems.
“There’s never enough time,” said Neumann. “Even the 31-day maximum stay allowed by some programs isn’t enough, and there’s often not enough follow-up.”
Becker said the 39-bed detox program scheduled to open in May will be followed by the 50-person sobering center six months later.
The sobering center is designed to provide agencies an alternative to emergency rooms and drunk tanks for dealing with inebriates who need to “sleep it off,” said Becker.
The facility will offer sexually segregated areas and special facilities for older patients and those with other problems in addition to alcoholism.
Becker acknowledged that there’s still a shortage of longer-term treatment facilities, but notes that the country currently contracts for about $25 million in adult drug treatment services.
She reserved special praise for Bill Riess, a psychoanalyst on the county’s planning committee who originally served as the Telegraph Area Association representative.
“Though the association has gone dormant and he has no official status, he’s continuing to work with us and he’s been a great help,” she said.