Sept. 22 2010 12:00 AM

A new detoxification center to open with hopes of reducing burden on police, paramedics

A new place will open in Lansing soon where area police and paramedics can take drunken people to get sober. Wedged between Domino’s Pizza and a big red house at 810 W. Saginaw St., the 11-bed clinic will be welcomed as much for what it does as for what it doesn’t do.

It will offer a warm, dry and safe place for uninsured people to go through the wracking stages of drug and alcohol withdrawal until they are ready to go back to the streets, or to start treatment. But it will not be a hospital bed or a jail cell, the expensive lodging provided now for those unable to think their way out of a paper bag containing a $2 bottle of gin.

The House of Commons, Glass House and Holden House are homes here for people getting treatment. But they will not accept unconscious people nor those too clobbered to think straight.

Meanwhile, police officers can’t dump them in a snow bank.

Capt. Ray Hall, of the Lansing Police Department, illustrated the scenario: A call comes through the 911 center about someone lying on a sidewalk, presumably unconscious. Police officers go to the scene, along with Fire Department paramedics.

The cops check for a crime scene while the paramedics do a physical exam. If there’s no evidence of a crime, the paramedics transport the person to the hospital emergency room for a more detailed examination. If the person is not injured, nor otherwise ill, he is discharged, but to go where?

“It’s the dirty little secret of law enforcement. We use lockup when there’s no place else to take them,” Hall said.

“This is not a public safety issue,” Bob Sheehan, director of the Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton, Eaton and Ingham Counties (CMH), said. “Safety folks shouldn’t be using their limited resources in this way. It’s a public health issue.”

Sheehan estimated a fire department pickup costs about $1,000. A hospital bed costs about $800 a day.

The new Saginaw Street detox center (short for detoxification) will provide an alternative to jail or the hospital. It will be where men and women can go through the nausea, sweats, shakes and anxiety of drug withdrawal. The clinic will be run by CMH and staffed with a nurse and/or a physician, and mental health workers. It will be re-located from Mason where it simply was not earning its keep, serving only three people per day.

The center, set to open Oct. 10, will cost nearly $500,000 in its first year, with funding coming from seven entities, including Ingham Regional and Sparrow Hospitals, the Ingham Health Plan, Medicaid and the Mid-South Substance Abuse Commission. But it is expected to recoup its expenses quickly.

Joan Jackson Johnson, director of Lansing’s Human Relations and Community Services Department and a driving force behind the detox center, referred to a San Diego study projecting $1 million saved over the first year of such a center.

Many of the clinic’s customers will be repeaters, whom Johnson calls “frequent fliers.” They are too poor to buy insurance. Their drug is alcohol because it is the cheapest.

Patrick Patterson knows this population. He’s the director of the Volunteers of America shelter on North Larch Street in Lansing. It is at capacity nightly with 126 homeless people. Statistically about half of them will be substance abusers and about 40 percent will have mental health issues.

“We’re looking at helping folks with tremendous need,” Patterson said.

Others refer to “the million dollar man” who symbolizes the few who can’t stabilize and instead soak up the services of countless agencies. Local lore tells of a man who appeared in the same emergency room five times in one day.

Now, if he is drunk, he will be taken to the detox center where he hopefully will stay until sober. But the center is not a lock up.

People will come and go as they wish.

There was a time about 10 years ago when a move was afoot in Lansing to open a “sobering center.” It would have been little better than a flophouse, Sheehan said.

This detox center will be staffed with people schooled in caring for delirious people who may have the terrors of schizophrenia or other psychoses.

Sometimes people self medicate with alcohol because their life is too frightful to tolerate otherwise, Patterson explained. The center’s staff will also know how to begin building case files and how to offer treatment options.

Treatment always comes down to building relationships, Patterson said.

The center will offer services to first responders from the entire region, but the reality is that most of its guests will come from Lansing’s core city because that is where most of the services are located, Patterson projected.

The detox center is good policy on two fronts, Sheehan said. The economic front is one: We are actually treating people now, but in the most expensive way, using emergency rooms and jail beds, while using up safety folks.

“I’ve been stunned at how many people wanted to be part of this project,” Sheehan said, noting a committee started meeting just seven months ago.

The humanitarian front speaks to the need for substance abuse treatment to be offered in as many ways as possible. People start, and they start, and then they start again. Suddenly it clicks.

People deserve to get treatment, Sheehan said.