Sobriety program for homeless people yields results in Petaluma

The year-old outreach program, dubbed Sober Circle, targets the city's “serial inebriate” population, which once accounted for up to a quarter of the calls to police.|

At this time last year, Paul Palmer was going on seven years of being homeless.

A methamphetamine addict living along the Petaluma River, he had been in and out of rehab a few times, but it never seemed to work.

He mostly kept to himself, staying out of the way of police officers and other homeless people, burrowed deep into the bushes along the river bank on the north side of town. To support his habit, he recycled. To pass the time, he would read, birdwatch or tend his vegetable patch of corn, lettuce and tomatoes.

Palmer, 52, is now off the streets and has been sober for three months, thanks to Petaluma’s Sober Circle initiative. He is one of 21 people who completed treatment at Center Point Drug Abuse Alternatives Center during the program’s first year. Six have found permanent housing; Palmer, who is in temporary housing, hopes to add to that number.

“I’m feeling great,” said Palmer, who started using alcohol and marijuana when he was 12. “Healthier than I’ve been for a long time.”

The initiative, which started a year ago this month, is meant to provide a pathway to treatment and housing for homeless addicts and “serial inebriates,” thus reducing the number of calls police get about the homeless population ­- and the amount of time spent arresting them and taking them to treatment or jail, only to see the same people back on the street a week later.

The program is a collaboration of about a dozen groups including the Petaluma Health Care District, the Committee on the Shelterless, or COTS, and the Petaluma Police Department. The results have far surpassed expectations, Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano said.

Before its implementation, officers were “riddled” with calls about the serial inebriate population, Savano said. Up to a quarter of the daily calls to police were related to that group of homeless people, he said.

Now, Savano said, the calls are “basically nonexistent.”

Property crimes, too, fell in 2016, Savano said - a 19 percent decrease he attributed in part to the increased outreach and interaction with the city’s homeless population.

“They’re going to realize that we’re paying attention to what they’re doing,” Savano said. “There’s no more anonymity to slide through town, commit a crime and move along.”

The program has changed the way police interact with homeless people who have substance abuse problems.

“We were seeing the same people having the same issues over and over again,” Petaluma police Officer Bill Baseman said. “We were taking (an officer) out of the city for up to an hour, dealing with the same guys, and what we were doing wasn’t solving any problems.”

Now, when officers respond to those types of calls, they bring along Randy Clay, an outreach officer from COTS. Clay, who spends hours each day engaging with people on the street, offers Sober Circle as an alternative to jail.

If they accept, participants are enrolled in inpatient treatment at Center Point for a month before returning to the Mary Isaak Center, a shelter operated by COTS, where they participate in group talks and work on finding employment and permanent housing.

A countywide “sister program” began in January under the umbrella of the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless called Sober Sonoma, where an outreach officer will respond to a call if the officer deems the subject a likely candidate for treatment.

Mike Johnson, CEO of COTS, described it as a “carrot and? stick” approach.

“The longer the period of time they’re facing in jail, the more likely they are to engage in services,” he said.

Others, such as Palmer, are enrolled in the Sober Circle program voluntarily when they come to COTS for other services.

Pain and weakness in Palmer’s right arm is what brought him to COTS in the first place, where he met Clay. Palmer had been there before for medical care, but this time was different. It was time, he decided, that he get clean.

After spending a month at Center Point learning what brought him to drug abuse in the first place - abandonment issues following the death of his father when Palmer was 12 - he now lives at the Mary Isaak Center, awaiting nerve surgery scheduled for Friday. Once healed, he plans to get back into the construction industry where he worked before falling into homelessness.

“I do have a plan,” he said. “It’s kind of slow-going right now with the medical issue, but it’s working its way through.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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