Homeless services should include a detox program

The Prado Day Center serves homeless people at 43 Prado Road in San Luis Obispo.
The Prado Day Center serves homeless people at 43 Prado Road in San Luis Obispo. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The opening of escrow on land for a new homeless services center on Prado Road is a milestone for a project that’s been in limbo too long. At last, we can put to rest the debate over where the center should go, and concentrate on what it should provide.

Some of that planning has already taken place; there are plans for health care, mental health services, after-school tutoring, job referrals and much, much more. However, there is no firm plan, at this point, for a detox facility on the property.

There should be. This is an excellent opportunity to provide a resource that’s been lacking in our community, even though law enforcement officials and other community leaders have long been pointing to the need for a local, affordable detox center.

“We’ve talked about the need for detox for years and years and years,” Grace McIntosh, deputy director of Community Action Partnership (CAPSLO), said at a Friday forum on homeless issues.

The time for talk has passed. We believe it’s incumbent upon all of us to insist that a detox unit be a component of the center.

That’s especially true now, since CAPSLO — which operates homeless shelter programs in San Luis Obispo — has announced that, effective June 1, it will be a “sobriety-based program.” In other words, it will not provide services to homeless people who use drugs and alcohol. That means an estimated 11 to 12 percent of clients will no longer be eligible to stay at current shelters, according to CAPSLO estimates.

We understand and appreciate the need for a sobriety policy. CAPSLO’s mission, after all, is not to simply feed and house homeless people for a night or two and send them on their way. Rather, it offers case management — counseling, referrals to other agencies, help in searching for jobs and permanent housing, health care, etc. — that will lead to meaningful, lasting change. For case management to be most effective, it stands to reason that clients be free of drug and alcohol addictions. We’re concerned, though, about what might happen to those who are turned away on account of substance abuse. We’re not alone; that was a major topic of questions posed at the League of Women Voters forum on homelessness Friday.

One question, for example, asked whether more people will wind up living by the creek if they’re denied admission to the shelter on account of drug or alcohol use.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” McIntosh answered.

Instead of simply closing the door on clients who test positive for alcohol and/or drugs, why not offer them the alternative of enrolling in detox?

The Good Samaritan Shelter in Santa Maria does exactly that; applicants who don’t pass drug and alcohol screening are given the option of entering the homeless shelter’s on-site detox facility — a sober-living program, separate from the main shelter, with medical support provided by an on-site public health clinic.

Sylvia Barnard, the executive director of the Good Samaritan Shelter, was in the forum audience Friday and offered to partner with CAPSLO in providing a detox program at the new shelter.

That’s a generous offer — we strongly urge CAPSLO to take advantage of it. If at all possible, start the program right away, rather than waiting for the new shelter to be built.

At the very least, include a separate detox unit in plans for the Prado Road shelter.

For many shelter clients, a drug and alcohol detox program is the first step on the path to a permanent home. We believe the new shelter will be incomplete without it, and we strongly urge that we plan now for its inclusion.