Unhoused people staying in front of vacated Oceanside Sobering Services Center on March 14, 2023.
Unhoused people staying in front of the vacated Oceanside Sobering Services Center on March 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Oceanside officials closed a sobering center two years after it opened because they said it was underutilized, but the center’s referral structure and strict criteria may have contributed to its failure. 

In December 2020, Oceanside opened a 25-bed Sobering Services Center operated by the McAlister Institute, which offers programs across the county for substance abuse treatment and education. It was the first and only center in North County and second of its kind in the region.  

The program provided a safe space for people to sober up for up to 24 hours, along with follow-up counseling and referrals to other services. It was also meant to alleviate stress on homeless shelters not equipped to assist intoxicated individuals. 

The center also offered an alternative to the Vista Detention Facility, which is where Oceanside police officers took publicly intoxicated people. 

Michael Gossman, assistant city manager, said transporting and processing someone to the Vista facility took police officers an average of 2 to 3 hours. But taking someone to the Sobering Services Center sometimes took less than 20 minutes. 

But in September 2022, less than two years after opening the center, the city decided to shut it down.  

The county is in the midst of an overdose crisis and sobering centers and detox facilities are in high demand, yet Oceanside officials closed theirs because it was underused. 

In its first six months, the center had served 105 clients, with an average of 15 clients per month. Eighteen of those clients were linked to other resources, and 19 were referred to a long-term shelter. 

That was when only people under the influence of alcohol were allowed into the center. In September 2021, nine months after it opened, the city expanded the program and began accepting clients that were under the influence of drugs, not just alcohol. 

The city did not set a goal for how many clients they hoped the center would serve, but nevertheless, the numbers did not impress officials.  

“We hoped that would boost utilization, but ultimately, it didn’t do much,” Gossman said. 

During the next 12 months, the program served 210 clients, with an average of 17 clients per month. Thirty-seven clients were linked to other resources and 67 were referred to a long-term shelter. 

The numbers still weren’t justifying the cost, city staff argued. The center’s operating budget for its first full year was around $771,000. Serving an average of 17 clients per month meant the city was spending around $3,800 per client. 

A number closer to 45 or 50 clients per month potentially could have justified the cost, Gossman said. 

“We wanted it to be successful and we tried really hard to make it successful,” he said. “But we had to ask ourselves if that money could have been put to better use elsewhere.”  

Jeanne McAlister, CEO and founder of the McAlister Institute, agreed the center was extremely underutilized, but she wondered if there were further steps the city could have taken to fix that. 

“Sometimes it takes a while for a program to get off the ground, so I’m not sure that two years was really enough time,” McAlister said. “I understand there’s limited funding and things like that, but perhaps we didn’t give it a fair chance.” 

The center also depended on referrals from the Oceanside Police Department – no other entity could refer clients to the program, which effectively means it was mostly offered to Oceanside residents. 

“I believe that if you opened it up in North County to all municipalities, if it was more centralized and others could refer clients, that you could have better utilization,” McAlister said. 

Shannon Smith-Bernardin, a sobering specialist and nurse researcher who teaches at UC San Francisco, pointed to a few factors that could have contributed to the center’s client numbers.  

Smith-Bernardin wasn’t involved in Oceanside’s program, but has been researching and working with sobering centers for 17 years. 

“Many programs experienced a very slow uptick in use,” Smith-Bernardin said. “The first couple of months were very, very slow. Even for six months or longer it can be slow. And that is usually because there’s a lot of work that goes into culture change to the referring parties.” 

In Oceanside’s case, that referring party is the Oceanside Police Department. 

“It’s often very difficult to get individual officers and agencies in general to change the culture of locking somebody up because they have a substance use condition,” Smith-Bernardin said. 

Oceanside’s police department held briefings for its officers when the center was opening, Oceanside Police Captain Sean Marchand said in an email.  

“This training included discussion and direction related to what the eligibility requirements were for someone arrested for public intoxication to use this facility,” Marchand said.  

With other sobering centers she’s worked with, Smith-Bernardin has recommended leaders of the program participate in ride-alongs with officers, do more immersive training with officers in the field and continue to communicate with the department every few months. 

Repeatedly encouraging officers to use the sobering center and showing them different ways of engaging with inebriated people has helped with utilization in other programs, she said. 

A review of public records showed the Oceanside Police Department referred 623 publicly intoxicated people to the Sobering Services Center from the time it opened to the time it closed. Those referrals don’t reflect all the clients that stayed because about half refused services and left after being taken in.  

During that same time, though, officers took 568 publicly intoxicated people to the Vista Detention Facility. 

So, police were still referring people to the Vista Detention Facility at almost the same rate as they were referring people to the sobering center. 

Marchand said this was because of the eligibility requirements for people to use the center: Clients had to be willing participants. This means they could not be combative and if police used force, it immediately disqualified them from the center.  

And finally, people who were frequently arrested for public intoxication became ineligible for the sobering center based on their level of intoxication. This means there was a limit to how many times someone could use the center. 

“There was nothing in the procedures or contracts that established a limit,” Gossman said. “But after the program was operating, both McAlister and the Oceanside Police Department realized that not having a limit was an oversight, so it was left up to the discretion of the officer and McAlister.” 

Smith-Bernardin said she doesn’t know of any other programs that operate with a limit, besides the only other sobering center in San Diego County, which is also run by the McAlister Institute. 

During her 10 years of working at a sobering center in San Francisco, she had people go to the center upwards of 100 times and, though it sounds negative, Smith-Bernardin said, it helped most clients get the support they need and build a community for themselves. 

The limited referral process also hurt use of the center because other referring parties could have included emergency departments, ambulances, clinics, homeless outreach teams, social workers, community programs, other police departments in the region and more. 

“The goal is to get people in the door and not worry about where they’re coming from and who’s bringing them,” Smith-Bernardin said.  

Gossman said police officers were often the most available and the most equipped to refer and transfer publicly intoxicated people to the center or to the Vista Detention Facility, which is why they were the sole referral party. 

Now that the center is closed, officers are, once again, primarily taking publicly intoxicated people to the Vista Detention Facility. However, a large percentage of them are released with no charges once they have sobered up, Gossman said.  

County officials are now encouraging a regional effort to divert people from jail without impacting public safety, which means a push for more sobering centers could be on the horizon. 

A recent report commissioned by the county and authored by the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional transportation agency, urges county leaders to create programs that will discourage the use of jail for low-level offenses, especially drug-related ones. 

Oceanside’s sobering center was funded primarily by revenue from the Measure X sales tax increase approved by Oceanside voters in 2018. The city also received a grant for the center from the county. 

Measure X funds are now being used for other homeless service programs, like the upcoming Oceanside Navigation Center and the city’s hotel voucher program. 

Tigist Layne is Voice of San Diego's north county reporter. Contact her directly at tigist.layne@voiceofsandiego.org...

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  1. This article reports that the McAlister Oceanside program was the “first and only” in North County. But for many years, Interfaith Community Services operated Escondido Community Sobering Services, ECSS, in Escondido; a combined short-stay sobering center and longer-term transitional housing program for homeless individuals (men and women) with chronic substance abuse histories. It was a greatly successful program, which only closed when the City of Escondido (which owned the property) determined to sell the site. Please contact Interfaith Community Services for more of this program’s history and current efforts in addressing substance abuse and homelessness.

  2. Interesting that $3800 per client is deemed a lot, when permanent housing for the homeless and homeless parking lots cost a helluva lot more more umit and person. Also interesting, this facility was held financially accountable and now they are closed. Most services helping the homeless are NOT, and this is why we’ve spent $20 Billion and homelessness is worse.

    It makes no sense that referrals were not encouraged from other support groups/agencies besides law enforcement. There is a desperate need for these types of facilities. Unfortunately, accountability and execution is sadly lacking by the state as well as by those with substance abuse problems. Until the state holds itself accountable we’ll continue to see these types of failures. In the meantime, more and more people are falling through the cracks, becoming addicted, becoming homeless and often resorting to crime to feed their addictions. Does California really have the chops to fix this or will we continue to spiral into a failed state?

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