No Hair of the Dog Here
New Sobering Center provides services to visitors and locals
New Orleans has a complicated relationship with alcohol. We celebrate historic cocktails like the Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz. We tout our open container laws and create personalized go-cups for birthdays and weddings. That sense of freedom to imbibe is part of the experience many tourists seek when they come to New Orleans, and that can lead to an unpleasant experience for some travelers.
Let’s be really honest for a minute. How many of those drunken, stumbling people screaming in the middle of Bourbon St. at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night are locals? The last time I walked on Bourbon St. on a weekend night, I nearly had a panic attack. The crowds, the noise, the vomit and the beads having nothing to do with Mardi Gras… they are just… gross. I will always recommend a first-time visitor to New Orleans takes that bumpy stroll down Bourbon St., but I will also always advise them that once is enough. In New Orleans, a little partying goes a long way, and it is way too easy to over imbibe.
That is why I was intrigued and relieved to learn about a new project by Odyssey House Louisiana called the Sobering Center. With the support of the New Orleans Health Department, New Orleans Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), the Sobering Center is a 25-bed facility located near the French Quarter where residents and visitors are treated for serious public intoxication. The Sobering Center provides a safe place where intoxicated individuals can sober up under the care of trained staff for 4-8 hours, then return safely back to their hotels or homes.
“The opening of the Sobering Center is one of many steps that the City of New Orleans is taking under Mayor Cantrell’s leadership to reach people where they are and use a harm-reduction approach,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city’s health director, in a press release. “This will be a place where people can be safe and have access to a compassionate place to sober up for a few hours – whether you are a one-time visitor to this city or a chronic alcohol user.”
The Sobering Center addresses public safety in an important way. Intoxicated individuals receive the care they need out of harm’s way, and the general population is also at less risk. The strain on the emergency medical system is lessened as well.
“This space is expected to the decrease the number of ambulance trips to our local emergency departments, thus freeing hospital beds for persons with conditions requiring more acute medical intervention,” said New Orleans EMS director Dr. Emily Nichols in a press release. “In just a few short weeks, we’ve seen that the average turnaround time to drop a patient at the Sobering Center is about 13 minutes, as opposed to waits up to an hour in the hospital.”
The Sobering Center soft-opened in October to EMS services and admitted 20 people. Last week, City Council passed an ordinance to allow NOPD to pick up and drop off potential clients at the Sobering Center, which is expecting to see an increase in admissions as a result.
The Center does not formally track the number of clients who are local versus tourist, but it estimates in the first month of operation that 60 percent of the people served were visitors and 40 percent were locals. There is no plan to promote the service specifically to tourists at this time, but New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation has been included in Sobering Center meetings and updates during the startup period.
There is no out-of-pocket cost to admitted individuals. The City of New Orleans provided nearly $1 million in funding with help from the French Quarter Improvement Fund. Together with the city, Odyssey House hopes to secure grants, matching funds and additional partnerships to continue supporting the Sobering Center.
To be eligible for treatment at the Sobering Center, clients must be at least 18 years of age, conscious and able to walk (on their own or assisted), non-combative, and undergo a breathalyzer to show they are impaired by alcohol and not a different substance. Those who are impaired by something other than alcohol may be transferred to a hospital or a detox program. The Sobering Center will process both voluntary admissions by walk-ins and those deemed necessary by EMS or NOPD.
The Sobering Center is located at 732 N. Claiborne Ave. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be reached by phone at (504) 459-0109, Option 5.