The Sobering Center’s Recovery Coach—George Shea

interior photo of sobering centerThe Houston Recovery Center

The Houston Recovery Center and the Sobering Center, is located at 150 N Chenevert St, in Houston, Texas. The Sobering Center employs recovery coaches, case managers and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). At first I thought a Sobering Center was a unique set-up for drunks to “just to sleep it off.” This is how it works: Houston police bring in intoxicated people to the Sobering Center in lieu of jail. Sounds like an easy solution for an alcoholic, yes? But this facility provides much more than an alternative to incarceration for individuals who are intoxicated and on the streets. Inebriate adults remain in the Sobering Center for 5-6 hours and have a recovery coach assigned to them. This recovery coach will suggest detox, rehabilitation treatment and recovery coaching support. The clients begin to develop options for greater self-care and self-determination. Case workers can guide the client toward more stable living arrangements. EMTs check their vitals regularly. At the end of six hours the client is free to walk out and will continue to receive weekly recovery coaching services or the client can elect to participate in a detox and treatment program. What is extremely comforting is, if admitted to the Sobering Center, no one will receive a police record, or an arrest record.

How did Sobering Centers Start?

There is a decade-long, upward trend in emergency department (ED) overcrowding and increased jail time for nonviolent offender populations. Homeless, alcohol-dependent people have accounted for a significant portion of this escalating trend. Law enforcement is the first point of contact with intoxicated individuals and the last contact is jail, or the emergency department, so police departments and hospital emergency physicians have been begging for an intervention. As a result, the Sobering Centers were born.

There are Sobering Centers all over the country, so the concept is not new. Some may be in your city. There is The Sobering Center in San Antonio, the Sobering Center/Inebriate Reception Center in San Diego, The Sobering Center in Redding, California, the San Francisco Sobering Center, the CARE Connection Sobering Center in Santé Fe, New Mexico, and the Dutch Shisler Sobering Support Center in Seattle, Washington. The Dutch Shisler Sobering Support Center has been open for over twenty years, and the San Francisco Sobering Center, opened in late 2003 and has provided over 10 years of care for the homeless population in the Mission District.

Houston Recovery Center’s Sobering Center has had 14,000 admissions since they opened their doors in 2013. That is an average of 100-150 people a week. Prior to the Houston Center’s opening, police were making about 17,000 arrests a year for public intoxication, racking up between $4 and $6 million in police costs alone. The Sobering Center has reduced that number significantly; from June 2013 to June 2014, Houston police booked just shy of 2,500 people on public intoxication, according to an August, 2014, Houston Chronicle article.

What is the role of a recovery coach at a sobering center?

The Center’s recovery coaches and case managers offer the option to sober up for 5-6 hours, 24/7/365. A recovery support specialist is available at any time to have that conversation with anyone sobering up at the Center. There are always three recovery support specialists on duty along with a medically trained technician and a case manager. They walk through the dorms to ensure the clients are okay. The EMT checks on the client’s vitals every thirty minutes. Once a person wakes up, the Recovery Support Specialist’s magic can begin.

Once such magician is George Shea

George is a recovery coach that admits clients into the Sobering Center. After a medical intake with an EMT and an assessment with a clinician, George shows the client to the dormitory and assigns the client a bunk. He stays engaged in conversation with the client, if they can remain awake. This conversation is purposeful, to gather information and to find out if the Sobering Center can help them. George is there to find out if there is a problem, or if they want to speak to a counselor so they can find rehabilitation help. If they want to go into treatment, the Sobering Center has connections with several detox centers, and rehabs. If they need a roof over their head, the Center is affiliated with several facilities including a Salvation Army facility and the Star of Hope Mission that is right next door to the center. These are all specifically low- or no-cost options for the individual.

Yet, some clients leave the Sobering Center without seeking treatment. Any client who has visited the Center can sign up for follow-up recovery coaching calls and receive recovery coaching face to face. George calls clients once a week and asks them to complete various tasks such as formulating their recovery plan. George works with building the recovery capital of these clients, which includes providing clothing, finding housing or arranging for medical treatment.

George interviews every client before they leave the Center. Paperwork is completed to capture the demographic of the client, and George, again, informs them that detox and treatment are available if they need or want to take advantage of the resources. George is not forcing anyone to make these changes, but he can help. George often relates his story in this process.

George’s Story

George grew up in Houston, in an alcoholic family. He began using at 12, and started losing interest in school, and gaining more interest in drugs and alcohol. Eventually he got kicked out of the house at 18, and dropped out of high school. His mother died when he was 20. The family imploded. He was employed as a DJ at a local radio station, and the DJ lifestyle made it easy for him to use. Eventually, his stepmother initiated a family intervention targeting his dad. During family week at the treatment center, his family initiated another intervention, this time with George as the target and he stayed at the same facility for 6 weeks. He left treatment but relapsed immediately with intravenous drug use. He moved to San Diego, California, and limped along, either in feast or famine, in-between addiction and work.

He couldn’t keep a job or a relationship. His DJ-ing exacerbated the addictive behaviors. He was fortunate to have a small inheritance, but that also fed his addiction. In his late 40s, his health was deteriorating, he was losing his teeth, he had symptoms of diabetes, and finally had enough. He was living in a dilapidated house in Seattle that was going to be torn down. He felt so much shame. He lived an addicted life and continuously put up a front that he was okay. Finally he reached out to his family and asked for help. They said to they would help him, but he had to go to treatment and live in a halfway house in Houston. He had his last drink sleeping in his car outside of a Mexican restaurant, the night before he entered treatment.

In March 2009, he threw himself into recovery. He became active in a home group, and started doing service. Because of his broadcasting skills, he began producing a recovery radio show. His show is a mix of music and message. The message is that a life in recovery is a positive testament to who you are. The program link is: . When George heard about recovery coaching, he knew he wanted to be a certified Recovery Support Specialist. He completed the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy training at the Center for Wellness and Recovery ( and started working at the Sobering Center.

One Life Saved . . .

George says his role is limited because he has these people for only a short period of time. He gives it his best shot. George gets the full spectrum of clients, some in full denial of their addiction, some aware of their addiction but with interest in changing and others in the middle, wanting to take action but not able to sustain any meaningful sobriety. The amount of brutality experienced by people living on the streets was truly an eye opener for George. Sometimes he hears from a client he helped. Like this guy from Michigan, his name is Richard, and he came into the Center about two years ago. He opened up to George about how he had ruined his life, and lost his wife and children. Richard is a craftsman who works with his hands but was homeless. In the past two years, George had gotten him into several detox and recovery programs, and yet Richard would relapse and come back to the Sobering Center. Richard would commit that he is on board to get sober, then he’d relapse, and come to talk to George. Richard is now enrolled in Cenikor, in their two-year treatment program. Cenikor is a well-respected treatment program with locations in Texas and Louisiana, where the clients live at the facility, work for the program, and as residents receive job training and career planning. George sees something in Richard that he doesn’t see in many of his clients. Richard may fall, but he keeps getting back up. That gives George a feeling of hope for him. And perhaps George’s coaching is making a difference in Richard’s life.


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