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  Council Moves Forward with "Sobering Center" Plan

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 13 -- Despite concerns that it could lure more homeless to Santa Monica, the City Council this week directed staff to move forward with a plan for a "Sobering Center" for chronic inebriates, who draw heavily on City police and emergency services.

The decision capped a sobering discussion of the hurdles faced by the City in establishing a center where intoxicated individuals can sleep off their drunkenness for eight hours, then are offered the chance to enroll in a sobriety program.

While both staff and the Council agreed such a center was necessary, City Manager Susan McCarthy cautioned that instituting such a plan without the support of surrounding communities may, in fact, attract even more homeless to the City.

"Whatever program recommendation or program design comes forward, it should not be viewed as an invitation to other communities to bring people or dump people in Santa Monica," said McCarthy. "That has unquestionably been a problem for us in the past."

Council Member Bob Holbrook agreed. "Officers have told me along the way that we are the dumping grounds, and that (homeless people) have been directed by neighboring cities to come to Santa Monica."

Newly elected Council member, Bobby Shriver -- who placed the sobering center plan on Tuesday's agenda -- encouraged staff to bring up the issue at next month's meeting of the Westside Cities Council of Governments as a "strong item of discussion."

"Somehow we need to communicate to other cities that this is a regional problem," Shriver said.

But some City officials cautioned that such a direct approach may backfire.

"We need to approach (the plan) with sensitivity to our neighboring communities," said Council member Richard Bloom, who is the City's representative on the panel for "Bring LA Home," an ambitious County-wide initiative to end homelessness in 10 years.

"There is a very real possibility that approaching this head on and the backlash that we might receive is something we have to consider," said Bloom. "We need the cooperation of our neighboring cities."

Each day, public drunkenness takes its toll on City services, according to the City's Coordinated Plan for Homeless Services presented to the council Tuesday.

Last year, the homeless accounted for 836 arrests for public inebriation and 90 percent of the 478 "alcohol-related" paramedic calls, according to the report.

"Of the confirmed transients, approximately 50 people were arrested five or more times," the report said.

The program, which would be operated by the CLARE Foundation, would cost an estimated $200,000 a year and serve nearly 1,500 people, according to City Staff.

The center -- which it has been suggested could be located in the now-vacant wing of City Hall formerly used as a jail -- would be modeled after similar programs in Escondido, Santa Barbara and San Diego, according to City staff.

"Briefly stated, in those communities inebriates are transported voluntarily to a staffed facility to 'sleep-off' the intoxicants," staff said. "Inebriates are not incarcerated or restrained and are free to leave the facilities at any time."

According to the staff report, "Trained service personnel, generally staff of a contracted non-profit organization, provide oversight and a brief counseling session to encourage the inebriate to enroll in treatment for their addiction."

Unlike those in other cities, Santa Monica's proposed "sobering Center" would be more comprehensively linked to court systems and mental health treatment facilities, staff said.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce and the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the Downtown, have endorsed the concept.

Council members urged fast action, noting the City had proposed a similar plan in 1991 to tackle the twin problems of homelessness and chronic public intoxication.

"I'm scared when I see (Council member Kevin McKeown) hold up the book from 1991 and it has the same language in it and we're here in 2005." Shriver said.

"We don't want to be here in 2016 or our successors holding the same book saying we talked about this in 2005 and no one did anything," he said.

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