A cause for CHIERS – familiar white van carries alcoholics to Union Avenue detoxification center

From The Oregonian – March 14, 1988

Dennis clenched his hands into tight fists. His faced reddened as he spoke. “I can’t remember! I can’t remember anything!”

With the help of two people, he was standing now. He had been lying on the floor inside the Burnside Projects shelter in Old Town when the call came in to the Hooper Center, and CHIERS had responded.

CHIERS is a name well known on the streets of downtown and Old Town and on the inner East Side. People who live there, some of them alcoholics, see its white van daily, sometimes flagging it down for a ride to the Hooper Center, more commonly known as detox .

Susan Hassing, a CHIERS staff member, awakened Dennis with some difficulty and she and her ride-along partner for the evening hoisted him to his feet. He complained of arthritis in his right knee and winced at the pain.

Since Hassing has not been deputized, she could not force Dennis to go to detox, but she could persuade him. And Hassing, who speaks softly and smiles generously, creates a sense of trust. She promised Dennis, who was afraid of going to jail, that Hooper was not a jail, that his admittance there would be confidential, that he could get something to eat and that he could sleep.

“It’s a safe place to be,” she told him.

Dennis agreed, but not without serious doubt. “I’m not going to jail!” he said, still fearful. In a few moments the emotional crisis had subsided, and Dennis climbed into the van.

CHIERS is an ironic acronym. It brings to mind a brief toast and the name of the bar in a popular television show. In fact, the C stands for Central City Concern, a social service agency serving the Burnside area. The H stands for Hooper Center for Alcohol and Drug Intervention, which is operated by Central City Concern. The rest of the letters represent Inebriate Emergency Response Service. CHIERS is one of the programs run out of Hooper, located at 20 N.E. Union Ave.

All this matters little to the people on the street who are drunk and need help. What counts for them is people like Hassing, who offer a kind word, a supportive arm and a ride to Hooper , where they can spend a few hours sobering up.

Shortly after putting Dennis into the van, Hassing stopped to help John, lying on his back on a sidewalk, a bottle of cheap wine near by. Like the other CHIERS staff members, Hassing knows many of her clients and they know her. John, she said, was a gentle man who would cause no problems. She was right. Once awakened, John recognized Hassing and climbed willingly into the van, where he tried to calm Dennis, who was hallucinating and thought he was on board a fishing boat.

In the course of the next few hours, Hassing would transport another half-dozen men to Hooper, where she would also help do the paperwork and medical checks — blood pressure, pulse, questions about health problems.

Hassing, 43, is a nun with the Holy Names order who became interested in alcoholism because a close friend is an alcoholic. She joined Al-Anon, an organization for relatives and friends of alcoholics, and “started learning a lot about the disease, how incapacitating it is, how unfreeing it is.”

Her concern led her from teaching and her position as principal at the former St. Francis parish elementary school to her job at Hooper, where she has worked for about 18 months.

The job has its drawbacks. “Seeing them rotate through,” sometimes on a daily basis, can be discouraging, she said. “It’s hard to see that.”

But other times they ask to enter Hooper’s five-day detoxification program, a step toward potentially permanent change in their lives. Those decisions keep her going.

Not everyone is ready for that step, or even to spend a few hours at Hooper. Hassing stopped the van to talk to a tall man standing in the chilling wind in Old Town. He approached and put his hands on hers. She was wearing surgical gloves.

“I’m frozen,” he said. He had been drinking.

“Do you want to come to Hooper?” she asked. “Get some juice and soup?”

The man said he did not, but kept his hands on hers. “Boy, your hands are warm.”

Hassing asked again. “It’s a safe place to be,” she said. But the man declined, choosing to stay on the streets, possibly to get a ride later in the evening, when he had had more to drink.