FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A northern Arizona detox center closed Wednesday, leaving officials in Page concerned that more people could freeze to death this winter without a warm place to sober up.
The number of exposure deaths has dropped in the time the city has had a detox center, from about a dozen a year to around three, said Page police Chief Charlie Dennis. Officials say the impact of losing a place where people struggling with alcoholism can spend a couple of hours, the night, or a few days out of the cold and receive counseling services for substance abuse will be severe.
“I just hope that a solution can be found sooner to prevent any losses,” Dennis said.
The Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority provided the majority of the $600,000 annual budget for the Rural Substance Abuse Transitional Agency. The authority’s chief executive, Mick Pattinson, said millions of dollars in state budget cuts and unexpectedly low enrollment numbers at the detox center forced the authority to pull its funding.
Similar facilities in Flagstaff, Holbrook and Winslow are unaffected, but the closest one to Page is 140 miles away.
Page is not unlike other towns that border the Navajo Nation or other Indian reservations and that attract people who want to drink. The sale and consumption of alcohol on the Navajo reservation, a massive expanse of land that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is banned in all but a couple of places. Officials say that up to 95 percent of those at the detox center in Page were American Indian.
Public intoxication is not a crime in Arizona, though Page Mayor Bill Diak and others have been lobbying the Legislature to get that changed to force rehabilitation services. Police have been patrolling the desert areas in Page near stores that sell liquor, underground culverts where inebriates are known to gather and the city park where some have passed out, letting them know they could be facing cold, rough nights if they can’t make it home.
The patrols won’t stop, Dennis said. But now instead of officers trying to convince severely intoxicated people to go to the detox center, authorities will rely on the fire department for an initial medical assessment and transport people to the hospital if necessary to get their blood-alcohol levels down to a safe level.
“These are our citizens, whether they have residences here or not,” said Diak, who works part-time as a medic at the emergency room. “They make up part of our city, and good or bad, I feel an obligation that we need to protect them to the best of our abilities. That being said, if we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money.”
The 12-bed detox center opened some 15 years ago. It saw an average enrollment of six people per day, with more people coming in during the winter months than the summertime, said NARBHA spokeswoman Christina Mencuccini.
“Its’ utilization is only about half of what has been expected, and that’s pretty indicative of where it’s been in the last few years,” she said.
Catholic Charities also used the detox center as a resource in a homeless outreach program it ran under contract with the Navajo Nation. Antoinette Sablan with Catholic Charities said the 9-month contract expires at the end of this year and she was unsure whether it would be renewed.
Sablan said her group has been discussing alternatives with the tribe for temporary housing those who drink too much but had no concrete plans as of Wednesday.