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On the rocks

Detox proposal leaves homeless advocates hoping for other options

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A proposal to open a new detox center next to the county jail was heralded as a glimpse of the future this week.

Dee Drake sees it as a blast from the past.

"I'm really concerned about us turning our criminal justice system into a behavioral health system," she says.

As director of the El Paso County Co-Occurring Disorders Collaboration, Drake works with more than 100 local homeless people who have mental health and substance abuse problems. Getting them through detox, she says, is a first step toward long-term housing or treatment.

But if you put detox under law enforcement control, she says, "they won't go there."

The Lighthouse Assessment Center, operated at a deficit for years by Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group, closed Feb. 1. That eliminated 20 beds that helped ease the burden and expense of treating intoxicated patients at local emergency rooms.

The Harbor House Collaborative, a local homeless support organization, had proposed to open a 35- to 40-bed facility this summer as a replacement. But financial woes killed the plan.

At a county meeting Monday, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa offered to include a 40-bed detox facility in one of two structures he's planning for property north of the jail.

The proposal initially seems a no-brainer: The sheriff's office would already have medical staff and deputies on hand to make the facility safe. And assembling the domed, semi-rigid structures would be paid for largely with money from the sheriff's contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigration detainees.

One structure would house 140-plus detainees, while the other would be split, with 70 beds for detainees on one side and detox on the other.

It would be considered a "social" detox center a step down from the Lighthouse's "medical" facility, but still providing a level of care that would qualify it for nearly $800,000 annually in state funding.

Maketa said staffing and running the center, which would be possible by late summer or early fall, would cost $1.4 to $1.6 million a year, similar to what PPBHG received to run the Lighthouse. (PPBHG's total costs neared $3 million a year.)

Monday's questions focused mostly on technical details, one of which was whether spending a night in detox would carry a criminal penalty. Maketa said patients wouldn't necessarily be charged with a crime, but there would be "collateral arrests," meaning that detox patients with outstanding warrants "will get booked in."

Steve Handen, a local homeless advocate who runs a small shelter on Colorado Springs' west side, remembers that in the '70s, detox was a function of the jail and addiction was cause for punishment. However well Maketa might run a new facility, Handen says, his proposal gives an impression of going backward.

"We worked very hard in the past to get alcoholism changed from a crime to a disease," he says.

Drake appreciates Maketa's willingness to address the detox need. But the possibility of arrest, she says, whether real or imagined, could stop people from seeking services. And people might even avoid getting medical care if they know the hospital is sending intoxicated (but otherwise healthy) patients to a sheriff-run detox center.

Connect Care, the local agency that administers state detox funds, has set a March 18 deadline for other proposals.

lane@csindy.com

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