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By KEVIN BAIRD
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
FAIRBANKS — The Tanana Chiefs Conference Sobering Center was dedicated Monday afternoon and will have a soft opening “very soon,” said Shirley Lee, a TCC employee who took the lead on bringing the sobering center to Fairbanks.
Seven people froze to death in Fairbanks during the 2007-08 winter, Lee said during the dedication, and six of those people were intoxicated with nowhere to go. Since then, TCC and other local organizations have looked at solving the issue. Since then, TCC established Housing First to provide a long-term housing solution to people battling addiction. But a more immediate way to help intoxicated people remained. The new sobering center addresses that issue.
“They deserve our help,” Lee said.
Law enforcement officers or the Fairbanks Community Service Patrol can bring people to the sobering center, or people can admit themselves. The Sobering Center gives intoxicated guests a chance to sober up for 12 hours in a safe environment. After being medically cleared, guests will be interviewed to see which other services they might need such as further detox from other substances, addiction counseling or safe shelter from domestic violence.
The Sobering Center was originally supposed to open in June but the lease took longer than expected. Finding the right staff who can pass two background checks and have a passion to help the Sobering Center’s guests is taking longer than expected as well.
“This isn’t just about opening a warm building and throwing cots on the floor,” Lee said.
The soft opening will be an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. operation. Lee said TCC will make a public announcement when it is ready to open. The center will move to a 24-hour per day, seven day per week operation when more equipment and staff arrive. As of Monday, there were no beds in the sobering center.
Jacoline Bergstrom, TCC’s health executive director, said the Sobering Center could not have come together without the help of Fairbanks Native Association, the city of Fairbanks, Fairbanks Police Department, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and the Alaska Department of Corrections.
Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly called the sobering center a lifesaving center. Matherly asked people to raise their hands if alcoholism has had an impact on their family or friends. Nearly every hand in the room went up.
“Alcoholism is not discriminatory,” Matherly said. “It just takes a hold of people. It’s an Alaska issue.”
Matherly discussed how one member of his family died as a result of alcohol abuse, and another member of his family is homeless in another city due to alcohol and opioid abuse. He said guests at the Sobering Center deserve to be loved and respected.
The TCC Sobering Center is made possible through a three-year grant from the state, and Matherly said the next step is to find sustainable funding beyond the life of the grant. Matherly said he would pray to find a solution.
Jeff Cook, who is president of the Greater Fairbanks Community Hospital Foundation, said he would pray as well.
“Part of my prayers is that people open up their checkbooks,” Cook said.
Cook said the TCC Sobering Center would cause a “domino effect” of good across the community.
The TCC Sobering Center is housed in the Denardo Center, which is named after Ann Denardo. Denardo became a mental health activist after her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The building has had multiple uses in serving people with mental health issues.