Mark Kaufman/Artomat
By all accounts, the Hooper Center sobering station is a necessary and worthwhile program that sweeps blackout drunks off the streets, and gives them a safe place to sober up--potentially preventing them from hurting themselves or others. However, several months ago, the Mercury received an anonymous tip that EMTs and detox workers on the Hooper Center's graveyard crew abused people in their care.

"Anyone who is brought into Hooper during the graveyard shift has no rights as a human being--not with those people," says Chris, a former on-call worker.

After speaking out against the abuse, Chris (names have been changed) was moved from graveyard to another shift. Chris attributes what she called widespread abuses to a chronic lack of supervision; management leaves by 11 pm.

"We're supposed to be caring for those people," says Sam, another source, who eventually quit after other employees harassed him for standing up to the abuse. "I feel these people are better off on the street than going in there."

Neglect, verbal abuse, and physical harassment are just some of the accusations that have been made against the Graveyard Crew. Three years ago, the Mercury investigated similar reports of mistreatment at the sobering station and, according to inside sources, the abuse has only gotten worse.

Mr. Saturday Night

I arrived at the Hooper Center sobering station at 9:45 on a busy Saturday night. Knowing I was there to investigate charges of abuse, the staff appeared tense, behaving like actors in an instructional video.

My tour guide for the evening was sobering station manager Steve Mattsson. During one point in the night he winked and nodded to his co-workers, offering comments like, "way to stay on message," and "good show tonight." Yet despite their best behavior, an incident I witnessed corroborated one of the sources' allegations.

When I first arrived at the sobering station, a young man with a goatee and ponytail stood out from the rest of his cellmates. Unlike the transients and lifelong users around him, he looked like he may have rolled in from a sports bar. This guy--let's call him "Mr. Saturday Night"--was loud and acting obnoxious, repeatedly asking for a female EMT's phone number. I asked Mattsson when he was going to be released and he implied it would be sooner than later--possibly during the next discharge time.

After an hour of touring the Center and interviewing staff members, I arrived back at the holding cell. Though Mr. Saturday Night was not there, neither had he been released. Instead he had been moved into what's called a "safety room"--a closet-sized holding cell usually reserved for dangerous clients. From the hallway, I could hear Mr. Saturday Night screaming bloody murder.

He had covered the safety room's observation window with thick, green loogies and was writhing around on the floor screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs.

"You power tripping bitch!" he frantically yelled at the female EMT who had moved him there. Something had obviously transpired within the hour since I had last seen him. He had turned from being an annoying drunk to a borderline psychotic.

For her part, the EMT sat there calmly, dismissively telling me, "I don't hear anything." Tough Love "They [the Hooper staff] don't even understand what recovery means," says Chris, the former graveyard shift employee who spoke with the Mercury. "They treat the clients like total parasites on the earth."

But managers and even some former patients disagree, saying that this approach does have a purpose. This school of thought is known as "tough love."

"They don't take no shit in there," explained Karen, a lifelong alcoholic I interviewed after she was released from the sobering station.

When I came across Karen, she was hitchhiking home at around 1 AM--even though I was told Hooper tried to reserve bus passes for women to ensure they get home safely. However, Karen had been released after the buses stopped running.

Ed Blackburn--a director at Central City Concern, the non-profit that runs the Hooper Center sobering station--explained that what often constitutes "abuse" is a matter of perspective.

"A certain amount of bantering may occur with well known clients," he said. "Some observers may interpret this behavior as abusive."

According to Blackburn, in the last five years, the CCC has only had to fire one sobering station employee for abusive actions.

My tour guide also concurred that tough love may play an important role at Hooper. Neglecting clients or treating them callously, he explained, can actually help them seek recovery.

"One school of thought is, they need to experience the consequences of what they're doing to themselves," Mattsson said. "We don't want to make this fun for people. You're not doing them any favors by lovingly combing the vomit out of their hair."

And indeed, the clients will often be confined to their holding cells, sitting in their own urine or feces--even though the sobering station is equipped with showers specifically for client use.

Some employees see being rough as protection against occupational hazards--such as restraining meth addicts experiencing superhuman strength. According to the female EMT, a young guy on meth kept the door to a safety room lodged open, even with a battery of staff and police officers trying to push it closed.

Still, Chris insists that while "sometimes force is necessary, most of the time it's not." And for the majority of cases where force is used at the sobering station, according to Chris, staff members caused the clients to become violent in the first place by verbally provoking them, escalating an already tense situation.

Anger Management The Hooper Center sobering station is not an easy environment to work in. The holding cells surround employee stations, while the stench of soup given to clients produces a foul combination with the smell of alcohol and bodily fluids. Unsurprisingly, there's a high employee turnover and each night workers deal with cases of mental illness, clients covered in blood, and out of control belligerent behavior.

But even though employees are hired to deal with incredibly stressful situations, currently, anger management classes and recovery education are not mandatory for workers. It would seem that including these programs in their training could prevent future abuse and help raise sensitivity to their clients' recovery process. Also, in order to monitor staff and ensure fair investigations of abuse, it's been suggested that cameras be installed in the sobering station. However, the Hooper Center rebuffed this idea, claiming the presence of cameras is an infringement on the clients' privacy and recovery process.

The idea of "tough love" remains a contentious issue among most of the sobering station employees. After my visit, Mattsson met with his staff to discuss the idea of "tough love" as a means to recovery.

"Our diverse staff might view the same incident in opposite ways." He went on to say in an email, "But we're all on the same page about providing a safe place."

While a safe place may be the ultimate destination, it would seem that the sobering station has yet to arrive. Sam, one of the former Hooper employees, holds deep regrets that she was not able to help more people during her time there. Her original intention--one presumably shared with everyone at Hooper--was to point alcoholics and drug abusers towards recovery. But she left because of an increasing frustration with her co-workers. In disgust, she sums up her experiences with Hooper in simple terms: "Good program; bad people."