Blog Post

San Francisco Sobering Center as Model for the Nation

April 5, 2016

The San Francisco Sobering Center, which provides safe, short-term sobering and care coordination for acutely intoxicated adults, has saved the health care system $3.5 million, according to new research by UCSF Nursing Health Policy PhD Student Shannon Smith-Bernardin.

Smith-Bernardin, a mentee of Healthforce Center faculty member Susan Chapman, has won a UCSF contest for her research, a cost analysis that examines sobering centers as viable alternatives to overburdened emergency departments and as effective places to treat people with addiction issues.

There are about 20 sobering centers across this country and dozens more looking to initiate sobering programs, yet there has been no research on sobering programs’ safety or cost efficiency until now.

Shannon Smith-Bernardin works with a patient at the San Francisco Sobering Center. (Photos by Elisabeth Fall)

Smith-Bernardin started out as a nurse at the emergency department of San Francisco General Hospital ten years ago. She found herself spending much of the time in conversation with clients about their circumstances and history, and enjoyed working with people who struggled with addiction or mental illness. Eventually, she changed jobs and found her calling at the Sobering Center.

“In the US, people start out in poverty, live in poverty and end in poverty,” Smith-Bernardin said. “We need a reframing of the situation that stops blaming the individual for systematic inequality.”

Smith-Bernardin’s research looks at outcomes of a program that has been around for several years, but not carefully evaluated, according to Dr. Chapman.  “These data may be useful to other communities looking to replicate this type of solution for a seemingly intractable problem,” Chapman said.

Smith-Bernardin will go on to represent UCSF at the UC system-wide contest this spring.

Watch her three-minute video here:

To learn more or to get involved with the national effort to find alternative models of caring for intoxicated individuals, please visit