Sobering concerns on new handling of public drunkenness

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Melbourne’s new sobering up centre will have capacity for 140 people a week when public drunkenness is decriminalised from November 7, but the state’s new system for handling intoxicated Victorians could quickly be tested.

Tender documents seen by The Sunday Age suggest the centre’s capacity could be strained if the changes lead to major diversions of low-risk patients away from hospitals.

The location for the government’s first sobering-up centre in Collingwood.Credit: Joe Armao

When contracting out the work for the Melbourne service, the state government used 2019 crime statistics for the public intoxication offence to predict that the new sobering-up centre would handle at least 3700 people a year.

But the documents warn that estimate may drastically understate the total demand.

In 2019, there were 5470 semi-urgent or non-urgent presentations to emergency departments across Victoria with alcohol or other drugs as the primary reason. Analysis by the Department of Health predicts annual demand at the Collingwood centre could rise to 7478 if these people were instead diverted to sobering services.

Data collected by addiction-research group Turning Point, provided to a parliamentary inquiry, said there were 59,216 alcohol-related hospital admissions in the 2021–22 financial year, and 45,759 alcohol-related ambulance attendances in 2022.

Over the course of a year, the Collingwood centre — which has 40 staff — would in theory be able to handle up to 7280 people. But demand is expected to be unevenly spread, with peaks on weekends and after major events.

And with the new public drunkenness regime just over a week from starting – on Melbourne Cup Day – emergency service unions still have concerns about how the new rules will work and what to do with people who need assistance, but refuse it.

Unions whose members are affected by the change say they support the laws but remain concerned about their implementation.

Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill said there would be circumstances where an intoxicated person refused assistance from police, or ambulance, or sobering up services – but were still a potential risk to themselves or others.

“How do we expect dedicated emergency and health workers to simply leave that person by themselves?” he said.

Changes to how public intoxication will be handled begin on Melbourne Cup Day.Credit: Christopher Hopkins

In an effort to address potential problems, the state government will set up an implementation and oversight group to observe the rollout of the program and recommend changes.

From November 7, the offence of public drunkenness will be abolished and health services will take charge of many cases typically handed by police or paramedics. The reform was legislated in 2021 following the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who suffered a fall while in custody.

Intoxicated people who commit crimes, are dangerous or need serious medical support will still be handled by emergency services, but people who are merely drunk in public and need help will be treated by support workers from different providers cross the state.

Nightlife hotspots such Collingwood, Fitzroy and the CBD will be patrolled by crews offering sobering services.Credit: Joe Armao

Community health provider cohealth will run the 24-7 sobering up centre at 3 Cambridge Street in Collingwood. An outreach service made up of 10 crews will patrol Melbourne’s drinking hotspots and respond to callouts, expecting to interact with 4500 people annually.

When outreach crews respond to a person in need of help, their priority will be to contact family and friends and find them a way home before considering the sobering up centre. To be eligible for the centre, they must be able to consent and to walk with some assistance.

In a trial program run in the City of Yarra, the majority of cases were sent home rather than taken to a centre.

Call-outs for Aboriginal Victorians in Melbourne will be handled separately and have been estimated to be in the range of 330 per year.

Other dedicated services will be based around First Nations communities and a centralised call centre will also be set up to handle requests from paramedics, police and the public for assistance, through triple-zero. The government is yet to announce who has been awarded these contracts.

As part of its preparation, cohealth has been meeting with liquor licensees and the Victorian Racing Club.

Cohealth chief executive Nicole Bartholomeusz said Victorians would be comforted knowing vulnerable loved ones were being looked after by health professionals.

“Whether it’s providing a bottle of water, supporting people to get home or taking them to a sobering centre, our health teams will keep people safe if they need help,” she said.

Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

Police Association state secretary Wayne Gatt said the government needed to ask what would happen to those who said no to a sobering centre.

“Someone will get hurt at some stage as a result of the reckless way this reform has been introduced,” he said.

Health and Community Services union state secretary Paul Healey said the changes would not be enough to prevent deaths in custody and called for better health resources in watch houses, improved training and technology to monitor the health of those incarcerated.

Opposition police spokesman Brad Battin said the Allan government had not understood the demand created by the changes and the system would fail if the health response wasn’t ready.

“The Liberal and Nationals are calling for pause to get this right and reduce the risk to community safety,” he said.

A state government spokeswoman said the new services would give people the care they needed.

“Most of the time, we know they shouldn’t end up in a jail cell. But for a disproportionately high number of First Nations people, that’s been the reality,” she said.

Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation chief executive Jill Gallagher said repealing public drunkenness was vital to improving safety for First Peoples.

“For the same behaviour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria have faced inordinately higher rates of incarceration for public drunkenness than non-Aboriginal Victorians face,” she said.

“Alcohol misuse is a public health issue, not a crime, and therefore should be treated as such.”

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