Looked after, not locked up: sobering up service hits its stride

Posted on 5th December 2022

A new trial of a Sobering Up Service (SUS) in Yarra is already showing results, supporting people in Yarra to get safely home or to another safe place to sober up, and reducing the need for unnecessary police or ambulance call-outs.

Since first hitting the streets in July, the SUS outreach team, managed by cohealth, has engaged with around 120 intoxicated people in the City of Yarra, around 70 of whom were transported to their home or another safe place.

cohealth, The Salvation Army, Dardi Munwurro and Aboriginal Community Justice Panels were selected by the State Government to operate the Yarra Sobering Up Service trial. one of four trial sites in Victoria.

Specialist Aboriginal services, Dardi Munwurro and Aboriginal Community Justice Panels will operate dedicated Aboriginal outreach services and safe shelters for sobering up, while cohealth and The Salvation Army operate the mainstream program.

Within the mainstream service, cohealth operates the outreach function and The Salvation Army manages the ‘place of safety’ – a seven-bed sobering centre where people can stay overnight if they can’t be taken home.

The SUS outreach team, comprised of a cohealth community health nurse and a cohealth Alcohol and Drug Worker, undertake street-based outreach each Thursday to Sunday night (8pm – 4am), providing health support, transport or sometimes just a bottle of water and a chat.

Ruel Abcede, one of the cohealth Community Nurses who is part of the trial says the most important thing is that clients are treated with the utmost respect and care, and that the response is multi-disciplinary and flexible.

“We interact with a variety of people during the Sobering Up Service outreach, and our main priority is to make sure they are safe and that they have the best health outcome on that night.

“Some are young people out on a Saturday night who may have lost their friends and are disorientated due to alcohol, while some are more vulnerable people who are intoxicated but also dealing with other mental health issues or homelessness,” said Ruel.

“We use a range of assessment tools including the Glasgow Coma Scale and the Mental State Examination to assess a person’s state and work out the appropriate response.

“We’ve encountered someone who had a blood alcohol reading of 0.165. Some are vomiting and disorientated, others have been unconscious. In some cases, people appear composed, but upon questioning are confused about where they are, or how they’re getting home.”

“If they decline our assistance, but we’re worried about them, we are still focused on ensuring their welfare, so we’ll observe them from afar, and call an ambulance if we think it’s needed,” said Ruel.

The outreach team focuses on known hot spots in the City of Yarra, including Smith and Gertrude Streets in Richmond, Swan and Church streets in Richmond and Nicholson and Brunswick streets in Fitzroy.

“We have the van with us, so we can take people back to sit down quietly, or transport them back to their home if it is within 10kms,” he said.

Ruel says as well as helping to keep people safe, the Sobering Up Service outreach team has an important health promotion and education role.

“We educate clients about counting drinks, knowing how much alcohol is in different drinks and ensuring they stay hydrated while drinking.

“We also give every person a card that provides a list of services to contact if they’re worried about their drinking,” he says

The Yarra Sobering Service represents a fundamental shift in the way that we as a community respond to public drunkenness, says Danny Jeffcote, cohealth Outreach Cluster Leader.

“This new program and will save lives, improve people’s health and reduce the burden on emergency services,” said Danny.

“We’ve always known that public drunkenness is a health issue, not a law and order issue.”

“The Sobering Up Service reduces police interventions which can lead to people being arrested and locked up when all they need is to get home, or to sleep it off under supervision of trained health and welfare workers,” he said.

Collaboration with key stakeholders has been essential, says Danny.

“Since we began developing and designing the program we’ve been working in close collaboration with Emergency Services,” said Danny

All of the Yarra Sobering Up Service Program Workflows and triage models are developed and maintained by Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria , cohealth and The Salvation Army.

Ruel says he is excited to be part of the new program.

“It’s rewarding, you know. I know I’m helping to keep people safe, and my interaction with them could actually save their life,” said Ruel.

“Mostly people are very grateful. They want to know how they can re-pay us for our kindness. I explain to them that we’re health workers, and we’re just doing our job.”

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