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Sobering center loses director as operations stabilize

Friday, June 28, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Barely a year after the Austin-Travis County Sobering Center opened its doors downtown, Rhonda Patrick, executive director of the center, has announced her resignation.

The Sobering Center, a nonprofit local governmental corporation, was formed through an interlocal agreement with Travis County and the city of Austin in 2016.

Patrick, who has served as executive director since January 2018, has worked in the addictions and mental health recovery fields for more than two decades. Prior to her work at the Sobering Center, she was chief executive officer of the Behavioral Health Alliance of Texas.

In a letter to city officials, Nancy Hohengarten, chair of the center’s board of directors, wrote that Patrick “came on board at a perfect time and was instrumental in the center’s start-up phase.”

The board selected Patrick in late 2017 to hire staff and oversee building renovations as the center prepared to take over the space previously used by the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“My tenure began in January of 2018 and I basically got a desk, a chair and a morgue that I had to convert to a sobering center,” Patrick told the Health and Human Services Committee at its June 12 meeting. “That was a major undertaking.”

Because the sobering center concept is still alien to many, Patrick said it took a while to train its workforce to deal with clients and get them the help they needed.

Since its opening last August, Patrick said the center has helped over 1,700 individuals sober up, 85 percent of whom were intoxicated by alcohol alone.

“We have the most comprehensive model across the United States and we have become a model for other sobering centers that are opening up,” she said.

Patrick said the center is currently working on a wide-ranging analysis of how much the center is saving the city and county by diverting people out of jail and into a safe setting. That report is expected to be complete by late August or early September.

“We really want to be able to show and tell a story to our taxpayers that this is what’s happening,” she said.

With about 30 percent of diversions coming from Emergency Medical Services professionals, Patrick said the center has been “working with EMS … to tie up what we screen in the field, our triage protocol, our triage leveling system, and then the care we provide in the sobering center so that everybody is comfortable that the sobering center actually has the competency to safely sober people.”

The center is also planning to conduct a robust evaluation of its program, collaborate with the community’s behavioral health authority to address substance use disorder, and expand its coordination with emergency centers to better connect with intoxicated individuals after they have been cleared from a medical emergency.

According to Hohengarten, Patrick has decided to “return to her roots of community organizing and advocacy” where “she will continue to make a positive impact in our community for individuals experiencing harmful, hazardous, or disordered substance use.”

“It is now time to enter a new phase in our organization through our strategic planning process,” Hohengarten said. “We look forward to a long-term sustainable future for the center. To that end, we will be looking for new leadership in the months ahead.”

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story contained an error in the number of individuals helped by the Sobering Center. The number has been corrected. We regret the error.

Photo via Austin Sobering Center.

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