The Santa Monica City Council directed city staff at its meeting Tuesday, January 11th, to develop a sobering center for homeless people who are chronically drunk in public.

At Councilmember Bobby Shriver’s request, development of the center would be expedited.

Shriver has made homeless services a top priority since he was elected to the council last year.

“We don’t want to be here several years later saying we talked about this in 2005 and nobody did anything,” Shriver said.

A new sobering center would be operated by the Clare Foundation, a Santa Monica-based substance abuse treatment center.

Clare executive director Nicholas Vrataric estimates the center could treat 1,500 homeless people at a cost of $200,000 per year.

“You are going to be saving lives instead of having inebriates in emergency room hospital beds,” Vrataric said.

Vrataric said he believes local hospitals would help pay for the center because the burden of caring for chronic drunks would be lifted from emergency room staff.

Plans for a sobering center stem from a city staff report that states public inebriation by homeless people is a major problem in Santa Monica.

Representatives from the city’s community and cultural services, human services, police and fire departments prepared the report, which indicates:

n Public safety and hospital personnel respond to an average of five to seven chronic public inebriate calls daily.

n Ninety percent of inebriates who are referred to hospital emergency rooms are homeless, with 20 percent of them having serious mental illness.

n Paramedics responded to 478 alcohol-related calls in 2003, with more than 90 percent of those calls concerning homeless people.

n Police made 1,213 arrests in 2003 for public inebriation, with 836 — 69 percent — of those arrested classified as transients.

Despite the formation of a Los Angeles County homeless services panel called Bring LA Home, which attempts to end homelessness within ten years, Shriver said economic declines and lack of affordable housing exacerbate the problem.

“It seems to me that there are still a lot of homeless people on the streets and sleeping in public building doorways,” Shriver said.

Councilmember Richard Bloom is Santa Monica’s representative on the Bring LA Home panel.

“We need to approach the issue of homelessness with sensitivity,” Bloom said.

City staff researched sobering centers in Santa Barbara, Escondido, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

Santa Monica hopes to model its center on San Diego’s comprehensive model.

Instead of going to jail or an emergency room, a homeless person would be taken to the sobering center to sleep off the inebriation.

When homeless people wake up sober, trained staff would be available to give them a brief counseling session and voluntary referrals for treatment.

“This would be an incredible opportunity to place these men and women in treatment,” said Clare program manager Patricia Scanlan.

“We do not ever see these people sober, but they want help and treatment,” she said.

Although the sobering center would not provide ongoing treatment services, Scanlan said most homeless people would opt for a referral rather than jail time.

Homeless people would be allowed a specific number of visits to the sobering center before being refused services and taken to jail.

Julie Rusk, Santa Monica’s human services manager, estimates that homeless people might visit the sobering center 12 to 15 times before accepting a referral for ongoing treatment.

San Diego officials told Santa Monica staff that chronically drunken homeless people often choose treatment when threatened with 120 to 180 days in jail.

One possible location for a sobering center in Santa Monica is the vacant wing of City Hall that formerly housed a jail.

Neighbors previously objected to a sobering center at the Clare facility on Pico Boulevard

“Whatever program comes forward, it should not be an invitation for other communities to bring homeless people into Santa Monica,” said Santa Monica city manager Susan McCarthy. “This unquestionably has been a problem for us in the past.”

Phil Sanchez, deputy chief of the Santa Monica Police Department, said the practice of transporting homeless people across city boundaries is rare because those who do this could be charged with kidnapping and liable for a person’s physical safety.

City Council members agreed that a regional approach to homelessness is favored.

“We need to communicate to other cities that homelessness is a regional problem,” Shriver said.

City staff was also directed to find ways of working with the court system and mental health organizations to help homeless people get decent enough treatment to stay out of jail.