FAIRBANKS—A year of intense local organizing and advocacy has earned the Fairbanks area state funding for a sobering center.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced Thursday that Fairbanks is one of three communities that will receive a portion of $6 million in grants for new substance abuse treatment programs.
Under the award, the Tanana Chiefs Conference will receive a $500,000 grant for the start-up and initial operation costs of a 12-bed sobering center in Fairbanks. The organization will also receive continued state funding through the 2019 fiscal year for operation of the center.
Finding funding for a sobering center has been a top priority of many local groups and has been particularly highlighted by the recent deaths of people taken into custody at Fairbanks Correctional Center.
"There's such a great unmet need for these types of services," said TCC's Housing First Director Shirley Lee. "There's just a great need for any kind of resource that would help get people off the street into safety, which would allow them to address their issues."
A 2015 report commissioned by Gov. Bill Walker raised significant concerns about the long-standing policy of housing intoxicated people in correctional centers, stating that it was putting potentially medically fragile people into a risky situation. The report focused on the August 2015 death of Gilbert Joseph while he was on a non-criminal protective custody hold at FCC and recommended an alternative to putting such people in jail.
A handful of other communities have opened sobering centers that are better-equipped at handling intoxicated individuals, including Bethel and Anchorage.
Lee said details such as the sobering center's location and operation are still in the planning stage but that TCC will be moving quickly on the center to meet a grant requirement that the center be open by the end of June. Lee noted that the service will be available to everyone in the community.
"It's all very early, but we're very excited to have an opportunity to fill a gap in the continuum of care that we have in the community," she said. "We've got a very short time frame once the money is formally approved. We have to be operational by the end of June, so there's a lot of work to be done."
The money was made available through last year's state budget as a personal priority of Big Lake Republican Rep. Mark Neuman, the former co-chair of the House Finance Committee. Neuman added the money to the budget in order to fill gaps in the state's substance abuse network. The grants were specifically for creating services that are not available in a community.
TCC, the city of Fairbanks and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital were all key players in the effort, as were many other organizations. TCC took the lead on the effort and conducted a community needs survey with funding from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The survey was required for the application for state funding.
Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly expressed gratitude for the award, as did Councilwoman Joy Huntington. Huntington noted that focusing on substance abuse treatment makes a lot of sense for the state budget by helping keep people out of costlier programs like prisons and hospitals.
Huntington said alcohol abuse has affected many people throughout Alaska and that the problem often gets overlooked.
“That problem has been there for a long time, I’ve experienced loss in my family and my community,” she said. “If Alaska had five top challenges, that would be in that one, two or three spot. The fact that we’re funneling resources to take care of our people, especially the people who get overlooked or dismissed, the fact that that’s the focus right now is a great thing.”
Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson thanked the Legislature in a statement accompanying the announcement.
"Quyana to the Legislature for making this funding possible, which will provide much needed behavioral health services for Alaskans," she said.
The other two grants are a $500,000 award to Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna for a six- to eight-bed detox center, and a $250,000 award to Set Free Alaska Inc., for a 16-bed residential substance abuse treatment center in the Mat-Su region. The Mat-Su program specifically serves women.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.