City News

City poised to withdraw effort from sobering center

City leaders are poised to pull the plug on a years-long effort to open a sobering center in Salem, saying they’ve been unable to find money to pay for operations.

The planned sobering center would have diverted drunk or intoxicated people from hospitals or jail, allowing them to sober up under the supervision of health care workers, freeing up time and space at Salem Hospital and saving police resources. City leaders as recently as June listed it as a key priority.

City councilors will consider the decision in October, following a planned recommendation by the city’s legislative committee. The committee, which consists of four city councilors, makes recommendations to the city council for policy and state funding requests for the next legislative session, which begins in February. Committee members are Mayor Chris Hoy and councilors Virginia Stapleton, Vanessa Nordyke, Trevor Philips with Linda Nishioka as an alternate.

Legislative committee members decided to remove the sobering center from the list during a July meeting, where Hoy cited the city’s ongoing budget crisis.

Jimmy Jones, director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said that the pursuit of a sobering center started around 2018 when city and county leaders and law enforcement sought to address the high volume of people who were homeless filling emergency rooms and jails.

“That had been born out of a lot of complaints, I think, from the downtown business community about people sleeping on sidewalks and being really intoxicated, and high, that sort of thing,” he said. He said the groups agreed it was needed, but initially underestimated the cost.

The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency built a downtown Salem facility for that purpose in March 2020, in the ARCHES Project building at 615 Commercial St. N.E. While the city has long listed the project as a priority, a lack of funding stalled it for nearly five years after the price tag for operations grew.

City officials said in a January 2019 staff report that the combined $450,000 the city, Marion County and Salem Health had pledged to fund the center fell nearly half a million short of budget projections. The center was then estimated to cost around $950,000 to run in its first year — up nearly $300,000 from a previous budget estimate. 

Former Mayor Chuck Bennett at the time called on Marion County and Salem Health – each offering $100,000 — to chip in more.

The committee has not yet made its recommendation to council, and will meet again on Oct. 13. The council will consider the list of recommendations as early as Oct. 23, according to city spokeswoman Courtney Knox Busch.

Hoy said the decision to de-prioritize the sobering center is unfortunate.

“We’ve tried several times, we had local partners. That’s fallen through. And now we’re just not in a position to try to expand any services when we’re trying so hard to maintain what we have,” Hoy said to Salem Reporter on Thursday, Aug. 31.

He said this will be the legislative committee’s recommendation, but the council may ultimately decide otherwise. 

Tim Murphy, director of Bridgeway Recovery Center, said last week that the nonprofit is in the design phase to build a combination sobering center and detox facility. He was not aware of the city legislative committee’s proposed the city pull-out before Salem Reporter reached out. 

“I’m disappointed to hear that, because part of Bridgeway’s plan to build sobering beds was counting on Salem city to help support that project,” he said.

Bridgeway hopes to use Measure 110 funding to open a detox center on Front Street, where people under the influence of meth, heroin and other drugs can stabilize and receive personalized longer term treatment. The measure’s funding will cover part of the new facility, Murphy said, but they’ll need to raise an additional $10 million to complete it.

Murphy said they wanted to incorporate eight to ten sobering beds which would not be covered by the measure’s funding. They planned to allow people to sober up for a day, get cleaned up and get connected with a social worker for further detox or outpatient care. 

The city committee’s decision came as the city faces a looming budget deficit. Leadership hopes to address the crisis with a payroll tax that voters will consider in November. The tax would take 0.814% of all wages above minimum wage, bringing in an estimated $27.9 million to fund and expand emergency services and homeless shelter programs.

Jones said the higher operational cost estimate killed the project.

“At that point, none of the partners really felt like they could go above sort of the $500,000 mark that everybody had pigeonholed for this and the cost increased toward that $1 million mark,” Jones said. Much of the projected expense came from staffing costs for a full team of trained nurses, he said.

Meanwhile, his agency had built a small 10-bed sobering center in their day center downtown. The city looked to the legislature to fund its operations, which he said didn’t attract interest from the state. Then when the pandemic hit, “everything went out the window.”

Another factor, Jones said, is that sobering is not as much of a priority today as it was a decade ago, as the need has shifted to long-term residential detox.

“Sobering was really sort of a short term range program just to get people off the streets at night, to give them a place to sit. And that kind of made sense 20 years ago, when we had a lot of folks who were highly intoxicated, and that is from alcohol. That’s less the case today than it was then,” he said.

Today, he said they’re seeing more people high on meth, heroin, synthetic opioids or Xylazine, a sedative known as tranq. People using those drugs won’t be able to sober up overnight, Jones said.

“When somebody’s really high on meth, you can’t just point to a cot and say, ‘Hey, go sleep it off,’” he said.

Over the years, Jones said the idea of a sobering center drifted from a top priority to something that would be nice to have, but not as urgent as other services. The state is now prioritizing long-term residential treatment facilities, he said, which bring their own challenges of labor intensity and expense.

“It’s gotten really complex,” he said. Largely, he said he was disappointed with the number of requests for homeless services that went unfunded across the state in the 2023 session, including the city’s ask to sustain operations at the newly opened Navigation Center.

The center opened this summer, and offers 75 beds for people paired with intensive case management that helps them access government benefits, health care, employment and permanent housing.

The Navigation Center will cost around $2.4 million to operate, funds the city has not secured beyond 2025. If the payroll tax fails in November, the center could close.

The Mid-Willamette Valley Action Agency is using the space allocated for the sobering center for its outreach work, Jones said. If the city were to find funds for it, he said they’d be eager to turn it into a sobering center as originally planned.

Murphy at Bridgeway said that Salem needs a sobering space.

“We were willing to have that, and are still willing to add that to this new facility we’re going to build, but I was certainly counting on them to help support that,” he said. 

Everyone sees the need, and was willing to chip in for constructing a facility, he said, “But nobody stepped up with any operations money. And this is a service that’s not funded through any commercial insurance or Medicaid or Medicare, there’s no government support for it, so it needs to be funded through the community,” he said.

Most cities fund similar programs through their law enforcement budget, he said, “But there hasn’t been a desire on the part of our community to lean into and accept that responsibility for that funding. That’s why we don’t have it.”

Hoy said that with the looming budget deficit, and the city’s lack of success getting state funds for operations, the city needs to focus on existing programs.

“We really aren’t in a position to be expanding services, even though we desperately need a sobering center,” he said. “It’s really going to have to be a private effort or some other non-city effort to make it happen if it’s going to happen.”

Though the Navigation Center is not the same as a sobering center, Hoy said it has added another option for struggling Salemites.

“it is an alternative that hasn’t been in place before and will provide a relief valve, I think, for certain individuals who need a place to be but don’t need to be in the hospital or in jail,” he said.

When asked if the city could return to the project, he said “sure, anything’s possible.” He said his hope is that treatment services or the county will pursue it.

“This is really their area. It’s not really a city area. So I’m hoping that somebody else will step up and take the mantle and run with it. We’re just not in position to do that,” he said.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.