Fairbanks sobering center takes first step

A small first step has been taken toward opening a sobering center for incapacitated inebriates in Fairbanks.

An informal coalition of four entities — the city of Fairbanks, Fairbanks Native Association, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and Tanana Chiefs Conference — submitted a joint letter of interest to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority requesting a grant to fund a sobering center feasibility study.

The letter of interest, submitted April 8 by TCC’s Housing First Director Shirley Lee and obtained from the trust, requests a $49,000 grant, with each Fairbanks entity contributing $1,250 for a total project cost of $54,000.

The project “will study the feasibility of developing a sobering center to provide a safe, supportive environment for homeless or marginally housed publicly intoxicated individuals to become sober,” the proposal states.

Sobering centers, also called sleep-off centers, are places for inebriated residents to sober up without using costlier services such as hospital beds or jail cells.

Alaska law requires that inebriated people unable to care for themselves be transported to approved facilities, and Fairbanks is the largest city in Alaska without a sobering center.

Jails or the hospital are the primary destination for these individuals. If no approved facility accepts the person and they have no money, they can be taken to the person’s home, if they have one.

An estimated 300 chronically homeless adults affected by alcoholism routinely sleep on Fairbanks streets or other places not meant for human habitation, according to the letter.

The letter states funds would be used for two purposes: first, to hire a contractor to conduct the feasibility study in a two-month time frame, with a tentative project start date listed on the letter as May 1; and, second, to pay for representatives of the participating agencies and the contractor to visit to sobering centers in Bethel and Anchorage.

The study’s goal would be determining if a sobering center is the best method to address the potentially inappropriate use of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department and 12-hour emergency holds at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, according to the letter.

“There is a need for such a facility, but the financial sustainability of such a program is what we’re trying to address primarily. We want to identify the need, how many beds would really be required and what it would take to actually maintain them,” Lee said during a telephone interview.

Applicants can expect to be contacted by the trust authority in regards to their inquiry within approximately three weeks.

CEO Jeff Jesse said he hasn’t looked at the application letter yet because of pressing state budget issues, but he did say “we’re pretty nimble for a state agency. If we’re gonna give somebody a grant we’re gonna give it pretty quickly.”

Jesse said alcohol and substance abuse is one of the trust’s focus areas.

Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart said Fairbanks needs a sleep-off center. He said the informal coalition of local entities was encouraged to submit the letter of interest during a teleconference with trust authority personnel because their “executive director has certain limited ability to issue grants to conduct a feasibility study.”

Originally published April 16, 2016 by Robin Wood in Fairbanks Daily Newsminer.