On the eve of the holidays, a longtime service for Portlanders suffering from intoxication is sharply reducing the number of people it serves.
The Portland Police Bureau tells WW that effective Dec. 24, officers will no longer transport intoxicated people to the Central City Concern sobering center at 444 NE Couch St.
Last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that the sobering center, run by Central City Concern through a contract with PPB, would be closing June 30, 2020, after 35 years of operation.
The issue: the people transported to the sobering center, many of whom are meth-affected, have become increasingly violent and Central City's staff determined it can no longer serve them appropriately and safely.
The sobering center serves about 10 people per day, most of whom are brought in by Portland police.
But the timetable for winding down the sobering center's services changed dramatically on Dec. 23, when the Police Bureau determined it would no longer transport people there.
The decision caught Multnomah County officials by surprise. Earlier in the day, Mayor Ted Wheeler met with county board Chair Deborah Kafoury to discuss the sobering center.
According to the county, the two discussed a scenario in which PPB would stop transporting people to the center on March 1, four months before the contract is set to expire.
Later that day, however, Wheeler's staff met separately with PPB representatives.
Out of that meeting came the decision that PPB would immediately halt transportation to the center, rather than there being a transition period through early 2020.
"The bureau recognizes Central City Concern's safety concerns and will no longer be transporting individuals to the sobering station," PPB spokeswoman Lt. Tina Jones told WW in a Dec. 24 statement. "PPB's number one priority is to provide intoxicated individuals with the safest solution and currently that is a hospital."
Multnomah County officials expressed confusion at that announcement.
"Yesterday, when the Mayor met with [Kafoury], they shared an understanding the sobering station would stop taking police drop offs March 1, 2020," county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan said in a statement. "That's what makes the sudden about-face later that afternoon especially shocking."
Central City Concern attributed its desire to end its work at the sobering center to shifting substance use trends in Multnomah County, particularly spikes in methamphetamine use that require more intensive care and present potential safety issues.
Dr. Amanda Risser, senior medical director at Central City Concern, says that last week the sobering center implemented a new screening process for admittance based on a person's risk of violence and self harm.
She says that new screening process weeds out "many, if not most" people that are brought to the center.
Risser says she "can't really explain why the county was so surprised" at the announcement that the bureau was immediately halting transportation to the center. She adds that the ultimate closing date is still unclear. (Central City will continue to provide services to the small number of people brought from Washington and Clackamas counties, and to people brought in by the agency's roving van, Risser says, as long as they pass the screening process.)
PPB said it expects to take most of the people it previously transported to the sobering station to area hospitals, but the county fears some of those people may be taken to jail, instead.
"We are now left scrambling to figure out how this decision will affect our staff and the folks on the street who will be taken to a jail or an emergency room tonight instead of the sobering station," Sullivan says.
PPB knew it was going to need to find a new contractor to replace Central City Concern.
On Dec. 9, PPB issued a formal request for proposals from interested parties. The bureau's deadline for responses is Jan. 9—suggesting the city did not anticipate the premature shuttering of PPB's transportation services.
Kristin Dennis, Wheeler's chief of staff, has been closely involved with efforts to handle the closure of the sobering center. She said the county's reaction is puzzling.
"Because an imminent closure of the facility or significant reduction of services has been in discussion for at least a couple weeks, and the county has been intentionally included in those conversations, it is disappointing that they would characterize the decisions made by PPB and CCC in this manner," Dennis said. "Safety of those individuals receiving services is of the utmost importance, and we cannot in good faith bring individuals to a place where the experts are telling us is not safe for them or for the people providing them care."
Dennis says the county's assertion that Wheeler and Kafoury agreed the center could remain open until March 1 is inaccurate.
"The Mayor and the Chair had a brief discussion on Monday wherein the Mayor expressed his hope that we could find a way, with the cooperation of CCC, to safely keep the facility open," Dennis said. "No promise or understanding was reached, because a separate conversation with PPB, City Attorney's Office, Mayor's Office, and CCC was also scheduled to happen that day to determine whether there was a safe and appropriate path forward. The Mayor and the Chair did not have enough information at their disposal during their meeting to come to an agreement about the complex situation still under negotiation."
Dennis added that the city and Central City Concern are still talking about alternative solutions and are hoping to minimize any burden placed on emergency rooms.