Board briefed on plans to develop a 24/7 dropoff sobering center; new center would fill a five-year gap

April 19, 2024

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards on Thursday, April 18, shared her detailed proposal for a 24/7 dropoff and sobering center in Multnomah County. The center would fill a gap left unfilled since late 2019, when the area’s previous sobering center closed amid safety and other operating challenges.

“First responders have told me many times that what they are experiencing out on the streets and in our neighborhoods is they have very limited options: the emergency room, taking people to jail or leaving them on the street,” said Commissioner Brim-Edwards. “And none of those options are good ones, either for the individual on the street or for the community.” 

Commissioner Brim-Edwards’ plan calls for $25 million to open and operate the center and then $14 million a year to operate the center going forward. The Oregon State Legislature has allocated $25 million to help fund the center. The center could also function as an alternative to jail for people being cited for using drugs. Such pre-booking deflection services are a key part of House Bill 4002, which modified Measure 110 by recriminalizing possession of hard drugs while also providing funding for treatment.

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards presented a plan for a sobering center during the Thursday, April 18 board meeting.

“We know that the success of this will be measured by diversions from the emergency room, diversions from jail, diversions from arrest,” said Commissioner Brim-Edwards. “It will also be measured by how we kept individuals safe who are severely intoxicated and not sobering on the streets, and we also are taking significant steps forwards in community safety and livability.”

Currently, there are limited options for first responders to send or take people experiencing substance use and other behavioral health crises on our streets. The proposed center would complement and add critical capacity to the continuum of care and immediately free up hospital and jail beds; people with higher-acuity behavioral health or serious medical issues would not be served at the center.  

“The important thing to recognize is that a sobering center can stand alone and be a piece of the puzzle that can improve human lives and make a difference in our community from the day it opens,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said.

How it would work

Eric Zimmerman, Brim-Edwards’ chief of staff, said the proposed center would serve people 18 and older who are experiencing acute alcohol and/or drug intoxication. It would provide care both on a voluntary and involuntary basis.

The center would not serve people younger than 18. Zimmerman said people requiring medical emergency services, psychiatric emergency services or long-term withdrawal management would not receive services.

After drop-off from first responders, a care team with medical and behavioral health staff would provide triage, assessment, stabilization and sobering, and then post-sobering services. Visitors would stay as long as 72 hours. 

The proposal also includes in-house transportation services, designed to quickly bring people to and from the center. Law enforcement, emergency medical services, and other first responders could also transport people directly to the center. 

A Core Project Team, assembled and led by Commissioner Brim-Edwards, built and informed the plan presented to the Board. The Core Project Team included healthcare and addiction recovery professionals, the Portland and Gresham Police Chiefs, Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell, Commissioner Meieran, representatives from the Multnomah County Health Department, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller, and staff from the offices of Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.  

“I have picked my mom and dad both up at different times from different sobering places,” said Commissioner Jesse Beason. “And they have had their humanity affirmed at them and they had their humanity unaffirmed and made to feel quite unwanted. Where does this live if we see it in a continuum of behavioral health and substance use treatment?”

Aaron Lones, the County’s consultant on the project, said the facility will straddle the criminal justice and public health systems. “When you look at other communities, the answer is kind of both. It's about public health. It's about community health. And it’s also about public safety.”

Previous sobering center closed in 2019

Since 1971 the community’s previous Sobering Station provided a resource where police, firefighters and other first responders could take severely intoxicated people and allow them to safely sober up for a few hours.

In 1991, the City of Portland began funding the program and last signed a four-year contract with Central City Concern in 2016, paying $6.8 million to support the station and its transport vans.

Safety issues led the Sobering Station to close in December 2019, and a lengthy City of Portland and County planning effort to reopen a new center and address other gaps, including stabilization and other treatment options, ended four years later without a plan for a new sobering facility. In September 2023, the Board of Commissioners approved funding to develop a new sobering center proposal, a project that Chair Vega Pederson asked Commissioner Brim-Edwards to lead.

The emergence of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids further underscored the need for a dropoff center, commissioners said Thursday. Since the previous center’s closure, the community has experienced an increase in acuity and overdose deaths and an impact on public safety. Between 2018 and 2021, overdose deaths increased 533%. One person dies from fentanyl in Portland every day, officials currently estimate.

(Left to right): Aaron Lones, a project consultant, and Eric Zimmerman, Chief of Staff to Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards, present details of the sobering center plan.

“Fentanyl, we all know that is a different animal,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “Somebody who is under the influence of fentanyl – is that person going to be going to a stabilization center?”

Zimmerman said the center should be able to serve people using fentanyl. The center would be a safer environment where people are monitored, triaged and potentially elevated to the next level of care. 

“Many people are using fentanyl and remaining on the street and may be attended by friends or attended by folks who are near them on that sidewalk,” he said. “A sobering center where you are monitored… is far safer than remaining on the street.”

Next steps include funding and location

The project proposal has already been reviewed by County and City of Portland commissioners, who were able to provide feedback and comments ahead of Thursday’s public presentation.

“We heard loud and clear from every level of feedback we received from providers, the core group, key advisors, County and city commissioners, and others that it's important to move forward as expeditiously as possible and lead with a trauma-informed approach,” said Michelle Rogelstad, Commissioner Brim-Edwards’ budget and policy director. 

Potential locations for the center are under review. The facility must be in Multnomah County and accessible to first responders and near a hospital. It also must not create public safety or livability issues for neighbors. The site is expected to be approximately 20,000 to 25,000 square feet. 

Commissioner Brim-Edwards said the planned timeline is fast — around 10 months — but noted it matches the need and urgency on the County’s streets and in neighborhoods.

Chair Vega Pederson commended Commissioner Brim-Edwards for bringing forward the proposal and affirmed her commitment to launching the center. 

“This is a critical need in our community and I’m 100% committed to making sure we have this resource,” Chair Vega Pederson said. “It will take all of us to make sure this thing is created and created successfully.”