Amidst picketers and protests, a company planning to build a drug treatment center in Northeast Baltimore explained who it plans to treat, and how it plans to treat them, at a community forum on Saturday.
“I respect and understand your concerns,” said Bilal Ali, the only representative from Clinic Management and Development Services (CMDS) who appeared at the meeting.
“Perhaps we can come to some kind of mutual understanding and move forward,” said the former 41st District legislator who last fall was named executive director of Columbia-based CMDS.
Some in the audience of about 100 muttered under their breath in frustration as the hours-long meeting wore on at the Church of the Messiah.
A handful picketed the facility before the meeting, holding up signs saying “Protect Our Children” and accusing 3rd District Councilman Ryan Dorsey of “pay-to-play” politics for accepting $42,000 in campaign contributions from people associated with CMDS.
(Dorsey recently announced he would return the funds, saying they had no influence in his support for the addiction center.)
A few people spoke in favor of the center, denouncing the stigma of addiction and saying more treatment facilities are badly needed in Baltimore.
Both Dorsey and CMDS say the company has “by right” zoning to install a 104-bed drug and alcohol treatment center at the former nursing home at 6040 Harford Road. This assertion was disputed by others.
Approach to Treatment
Many residents said they left without answers to their questions. Rochelle Lachance was one of them.
Sitting near the stage, she interrupted moderator Sherida Morrison, whose questions, she believed, didn’t get to the heart of the matter.
“What are you doing to help these patients?” asked Lachance, a longtime social worker and president of a nearby community association. She said it often takes up to seven tries for someone to successfully get sober.
“What is your treatment modality?”
Ali said the center will offer residents cognitive behavioral therapy, vocational training, and addiction counseling, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He said patients will spend an average of 30 days at the facility and will be expelled for positive drug tests, which will be administered weekly and randomly.
He said medication wouldn’t be a part of treatment, and it will only be an inpatient facility. He said it would be a “therapeutic community,” or a “TC,” as they’re known in the business.
Lachance wasn’t satisfied. She repeated her questions.
“I’m so frustrated,” she told The Brew. “Telling me it’s a therapeutic community is telling me nothing.”
Concern About “Clustering”
Many in the crowd said they were concerned that the area around the proposed facility, between Northern Parkway and Lauraville, already has more than its share of behavioral health resources.
Jennifer Cullen, a recovering alcoholic, drew a rough sketch of the area, marking those resources with red and green dots.
“This is a clustering,” she said. “Shouldn’t there be some more spreading out of this?”
Sen. Cory McCray, speaking at the meeting, said he is sponsoring legislation that seeks to address the issue. He said 35 of the state’s 87 opioid treatment programs (OTPs) are located in the city.
“It’s no reason why 40% of OTPs are concentrated in certain neighborhoods,” McCray said. McCray, whose 45h district overlaps the 12th and 13th Council districts as well as the 3rd, said those districts have worse drug problems.
Indeed, Turning Point Clinic is located near the border between those two districts.
Proximity to School
Other questions dealt with safety, particularly that of students at Hamilton Elementary/Middle School, about a block away from the building.
Tawanda Rollins, whose daughter is an eighth-grader at the school, cited crowds that mill around the outpatient Turning Point facility that CMDS helps run on North Avenue, saying such a scene should not be replicated at the proposed facility.
“Early learners are very impressionable,” she said. “Those are babies who don’t know anything about adult problems.”
“What is it that is inherently unsafe?” Dorsey asked. The crowd groaned.
Harriet Smith, of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, lamented the “distancing that I think some folks are leaning into. Patients are people, too.”
And Dorsey, himself a recovering alcoholic, said he didn’t know of any evidence of addicts creating safety risks. “What is it that is inherently unsafe?” he asked. The crowd groaned.
“This is people’s lives we’re talking about!” yelled Rain Pryor, who is challenging Dorsey in the upcoming Democratic primary. “Come on, dude!”
The CMDS issue has been fodder for an already contentious 3rd District Council race. Pryor, who was criticized for a tweet complaining about “junkies,” participated in the protest in front of the building.
Also in attendance was another Council candidate, Mel Munk.
The biggest problem with the proposed clinic is its proximity to the school, said Munk, who also took a shot at the clinic’s contributions to Dorsey. “The fact that he gave it back tells you it stinks.”
What about Zoning?
At the end of the meeting, many left unsure whether CMDS can open next month, which it says it intends to do.
Both Ali and CMDS President Kevin Pfeffer (who was not at the meeting) have said the company purchased the building specifically because it already had the C-2 zoning designation permitting the operation of a healthcare facility.
Dorsey said the City Council approved a conditional use ordinance for the previous owner to operate a nursing home before he was elected.
But Angela Jancius and John Murphy aren’t sure they really have that permission.
Citing the city’s zoning code, Jancius, president of the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association, said she believes the building’s conditional use expired when the nursing home closed in 2013. She says CMDS needs an ordinance to operate an inpatient treatment facility of 16 or more beds.
Murphy, an attorney who has represented neighborhood associations, doesn’t expect the city to grant CMDS its use and occupancy permit.
At the meeting, Ali produced a letter from Zoning Administrator Geoffrey Veale, dated November 8, 2018, saying “the current conditional use may be continued.”
Jancius and Murphy say records going back to the 1970s show no evidence of a conditional use ever being granted there.