Halifax is moving ahead with a pilot project to create a safer alternative to the drunk tank, with some details still to be worked out.

“If we had a sobering centre, would this have made a difference to Corey Rogers and that family? I don’t know,” Coun. Tony Mancini said during council on Tuesday.

“But I think doing this work is the right thing to do for our municipality, and the direction we’re going in, the growth providing supporting services.”

Municipal public safety advisor Amy Siciliano first recommended in favour of the idea in June 2021, as the Halifax Examiner reported:

Sobering centres are safe places for people to sleep off the effect of drugs or alcohol. They’re sometimes located with detox centres or emergency shelters, and typically have healthcare workers on staff. The staff triage people to the hospital if they need medical attention, or to cells if they become violent. There are examples of sobering centres across Canada, including in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Victoria.

The report by […] Siciliano is a response to a February 2020 motion from Coun. Lindell Smith seeking a staff report looking into sobering centres, along with managed alcohol programs and the data on detentions for public intoxication in Halifax.

Smith made the motion after January 2020 presentations to the Board of Police Commissioners from Harry Critchley, vice-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, on sobering centres and Dr. Leah Genge, who works at the Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH), Direction 180, and Spryfield Medical Centre, on managed alcohol programs.

In his presentation to the board, Critchley highlighted the cases of people dying as a result of their detention in Halifax Regional Police cells. Corey Rogers, whose death is the subject of a Police Review Board hearing […], died in June 2016 after he was placed in a cell with a spit hood over his head. And in 2013, John Burke died in hospital a few days after he was found unconscious in HRP cells. He’d fallen before he was arrested and suffered a brain bleed.

Council approved the next step back then. It directed Siciliano to “develop options for Regional Council’s consideration for establishment of a sobering centre in HRM.”

Siciliano brought a business model for the sobering centre to council in April. She estimated the cost, based on 30 beds, at $1.34 million annually.

In her report on Tuesday, Siciliano recommended a scaled down version, with 10 beds.

If all goes as planned, HRM will spend about $140,000 this year. For the next two years, the cost will rise to just under $500,000. That’s half the total, and Siciliano said she’s heard “strong indications” the provincial government will foot the other half.

Siciliano will “work with the Province and service provider(s) to finalize a viable service model, exact costs for each service component, and identify a suitable space.”

Concerns about provincial jurisdiction

Coun. Paul Russell was one of three votes against the plan, along with councillors Trish Purdy and Pam Lovelace.

Part of Russell’s opposition was based on the lack of a complete plan.

“We don’t have a service provider, we don’t have a location, we don’t have confirmation that the province will cover the costs. I think it’s too premature for that,” he said.

Russell doesn’t think a sobering centre is a municipal responsibility because he argues it’s health care.

“I think it’s wholeheartedly a provincial responsibility, similar to the to what we’re seeing with the housing crisis that we’re faced with,” he said.

Lovelace argued HRM should hold off on until it’s hashed out a service exchange agreement with the province.

“This is their bailiwick, this is their bread and butter, this is their expertise, not our expertise,” Lovelace said.

Coun. Shawn Cleary argued the sobering centre is Halifax’s responsibility.

“HRP or RCMP are going to pick up the publicly drunken person regardless. That is our responsibility, that’s our issue,” he said. “So if someone is causing an issue, and they’re intoxicated from drugs or alcohol, the call is gonna come in and our cops who we pay for are gonna go do that thing. The only question is what happens to them after they get picked up.”

Purdy questioned whether the non-profit sector has the capacity to run the program.

“Service providers are at capacity. I think what we’re hoping for today is approval from council to go forward and start scoping out potential service providers and the capacity they may have with additional resources,” Siciliano said.

“Hopefully a service provider would be able to, with those additional resources, ramp up their capacity to to operate a service.”

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said staff will come back to council for final approval on the pilot plan. That will involve a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government, he said.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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