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San Francisco to open drug sobering heart to deal with meth and fentanyl epidemic and avenue disaster

San Francisco will open a drug sobering center on Monday where people on the streets can temporarily ride out highs and get connected to treatment, the latest initiative to address the overdose crisis and complaints about drug use on city streets.

The center, called SOMA RISE, will operate out of a former office building the city is leasing at 1076 Howard St. in the South of Market Neighborhood, one of the epicenters of the drug crisis, along with the Tenderloin.

It will have 20 beds where people from the Tenderloin and SoMa are expected to stay between four and 12 hours, longer if necessary. People can access beds and chairs, bathrooms and showers, food and water, clothes and connections to “services and housing support,” according to information online.

The city designed the center in 2019 to mainly serve users of methamphetamine, which can cause bad reactions including paranoia or hallucinations and can prompt aggressive behavior. The increase in meth use over the last decade contributed to skyrocketing overdose deaths and flooded San Francisco’s emergency rooms with people in a mental health crisis. The center will also help users of the powerful opioid fentanyl, a factor in a majority of the city’s more than 1,300 overdose deaths over the past two years, and other drugs.

The program will be voluntary. People can walk in or be transported by ambulance or city outreach teams that respond to people who are homeless or in mental health crises.

Staff on site will monitor participants’ vital signs, respond to and reverse overdoses and help them find and navigate services. Once people come down from their highs, staff can transport them to their next destination, such as a shelter, treatment program, medical clinic or “home location,” information said online. The site will be run by nonprofit drug treatment provider HealthRight360, but funded by the city.

The center will initially be open daily from 8 am to 8 pm and scale up to 24 hours a day.

Officials hope the opening of the long-awaited drug sobering center — after three years of planning — will provide long-term solutions to people suffering from addiction and reduce the number of people acting erratically or dangerously while high on the streets.

“The rise in drug use and overdoses in San Francisco shows that we have to take action and try new things to get people the help they need,” Breed said in a statement in June 2021. “Opening a sobering center provides our outreach teams with a place to take someone who shouldn’t be left alone on the street where they can sober up, settle down, and get connected to other services.”

The need is far greater than 20 beds: In the last comprehensive count in 2019, the city counted 4,000 people who struggled with substance use, mental illness and homelessness.

The 18-month pilot program finally comes to fruition as San Francisco continues to try to grapple with reducing public drug use and fatal overdoses. The center’s opening follows Mayor London Breed’s emergency declaration in the Tenderloin in December to address the overdose crisis. It also comes a week after the news that the centerpiece of the emergency – a drop-in center to connect people to services in UN Plaza – will close at the end of the year.

The Tenderloin center was meant to help people get off the streets, receive basic services and find long-term housing and treatment, but critics took issue with the city allowing drugs use in the outdoor area of ​​the center, saying it enabled addiction. Supporters said it provided a low-barrier space for people to get help.

The debate could be reigned at the sobering center. Last year, the city said people would not be allowed to use drugs at the new sobering center, but would not be kicked out if they were caught using them.

Tom Wolf, a recovery advocate, said he wanted to reserve judgment on the sobering center to see how it goes. He supported the idea three years ago, but was more hesitant after the city allowed drug use at the Tenderloin center, which he opposed as counterproductive to recovery.

“I appreciate the fact that (the city) is trying to do something to address drugs and people in crisis,” he said. “I’m not 100% sold that this low-barrier approach where they give people a space to use dope, when it’s not a clinical setting like a drug consumption site, is really the best approach.”

He expects all the beds will be full, but said the key is to see what happens after visitors leave the center.

“What happens to that human being?” he asked.

The federal government prohibits supervised drug consumption sites staffed by medical professionals, but New York City has opened two. City officials, including Breed, have been talking for years about also opening a consumption site in San Francisco similar to New York’s, but the plan hasn’t moved forward, frustrating harm reduction advocates.

Her spokesman Jeff Cretan said Tuesday the city was still talking with the Department of Justice as they worked through “very real issues.” He said it was “an option” to have a nonprofit run the site, as New York does, to avoid liability, but the city was still “working with the federal government and finding a path forward.”

The city started planning the drug sobering center in 2019, but the pandemic delayed the planned opening in 2020. The city announced last June that the center would open in the fall. It wasn’t immediately clear why the opening was yet again delayed.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who co-chaired the city’s meth task force, which recommended opening such a site in 2019, told the Chronicle in the spring of 2021 that while he was glad the site was in the works, he was concerned about delays and that this tiny pilot wouldn’t be enough to meet the needs.

“I’m sure we’re going to find that we need more than just one,” he said at the time.

Information online about the center said experts are developing criteria to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, which will guide improvements and “may support initiatives to create additional drug crisis response centers in other neighborhoods where we know the need exists.”

The program’s costs, what long-term services would be offered and other details weren’t immediately available Tuesday.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Mallory Moench (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter:@mallorymoench

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