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“You can’t leave people lying in the snowbank when it’s 10 degrees below zero,” said Matt Westermayer, deputy director of public safety/police for the city of Mankato. “It’s our obligation to help these people, but something has to change.”
Though some counties are exploring alternatives to detox — including less-costly drop-in centers — advocates for people with addictions argue that the state government should be taking greater responsibility.
“If we do nothing, then people are going to die,” warned Roberta Opheim, whose title is state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.
The widespread closure of detox centers marks a significant shift for a state that once was considered a pioneer in the treatment of chronic alcoholics.
In 1971, as public opinion shifted toward treating alcoholics instead of punishing them, the Legislature passed a law eliminating public drunkenness as a crime. Later, the state mandated that each county provide detoxification services. In the ensuing decade, detox centers sprouted up all over the state, from Morris to Duluth.
But, as with many other unfunded state mandates, counties were left to fend for themselves. When budget pressures hit, counties shuttered their detox centers and, to satisfy the requirements of the law, contracted with regional centers in neighboring counties.
“The primary problem has been a lack of support from the state,” said Gary Olson, executive director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth, a detox center that opened in 1972. “They regulated the heck out of them but provided little funding.”
One of the obstacles is the public perception that detox wards are just way stations for hopeless inebriates, say detox administrators.
“People have this idea that we’re only serving chronic alcoholics who don’t work and are sucking the blood out of the system,” said Benson, director of the Chicago Avenue center. “What taxpayer wants to pay for that?”
The reality is much different. In Hennepin County, two-thirds of the people treated last year at the county’s public detox centers had just one admission in the past 12 months. At the 21-bed Mission Detox Center in Plymouth, about one-third of the patients admitted so far this year are first-time visitors. Many of them live in such outer-ring suburbs as Minnetonka and Chanhassen, and are dropped off at the center by family and friends. More than half of the patients arrive voluntarily.
After stabilizing the patients, the detox center provides counseling and helps connect them with long-term treatment.
“There is this myth that people come here to hang out and have meals, and then it’s back to the streets to drink,” said Brian Zirbes, program director at the Mission Detox Center. “This misperception misses the success stories.”
Homeless and addicted to alcohol, Odonnis Percy wept into a tissue as she recounted the times — five — when nurses at 1800 Chicago Av. saved her from an early death.
There was the night last month when, after a day of bingeing on malt liquor and vodka, she staggered in with a blood alcohol level of 0.47 — nearly six times the legal limit for driving in Minnesota.
“If it wasn’t for detox, I wouldn’t be here right now,” said Percy. “My grandmother raised me, and I don’t want her to bury me.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308
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