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Neighborhoodsby Mark Reutter3:04 pmMar 23, 20120

Some neighborhoods are politically exempt from drug treatment centers, official says

University of Maryland staff provide some answers as to why a methadone clinic was sited in southwest Baltimore

Above: John Spearman, senior vice president at UM Medical Center, and Tony Lehman, chair of psychiatry, listen to residents protesting the new methadone clinic. (Mark Reutter)

The University of Maryland Medical Center was told it was “not acceptable politically” to locate a methadone clinic it operates for the city in some neighborhoods, a top official said last night.

“It got ruled out from above,” John H. Spearman, senior vice president at UMMC, told southwest Baltimore residents seeking answers as to why a Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems (BSAS) facility was located in their neighborhood, which they say has a disproportionate number of treatment clinics.

Pressed to say who made the decision and what neighborhoods are exempt, Spearman said he did not know and would try to find out.

His statement adds to the mystery over how the BSAS clinic found its way to 1001 West Pratt Street, adding to an array of drug abuse and social service programs concentrated in a three-block radius.

BSAS is a quasi-government organization that administers the city’s alcohol and drug abuse programs. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sat on the BSAS board when she was president of the City Council, and four members of her administration currently are directors. The mayor’s office has not responded to several requests for comment by The Brew.

“We Were Misled”

The BSAS clinic moved to the building in January, shortly after it was purchased by the Abell Foundation, which also purchased 1101 West Pratt St. that currently houses Baltimore Behavioral Health Inc. (BBH).

Together, the two clinics treat 1,300 substance-abuse patients and the mentally ill. Nearby buildings provide social service and low-income housing services.

Spearman said UMMC had been looking for a new location since 2009 after it was notified that it had to vacate the Walter P. Carter Center at the UMMC campus.

“We were under huge pressure to vacate and relocate,” Spearman said, and many of the buildings it had inspected were physically unsuitable for a clinic.

Then, according to Spearman, UMMC found out that 1001 West Pratt Street was available. “This site just popped up. It fit the patient needs,” he said.

But, he added, “we were misled” into believing that BBH would be vacating the adjacent site.

“We thought we were subtracting, not adding, new issues,” he told the audience, saying that with BBH’s departure, the total number of patients would decline.

“Why Didn’t You Come to Us?”

Residents last night accused UMMC and BSAS of being highly secretive and avoiding contact with the community until citizens staged a protest rally two weeks ago.

“Before we chased you down, why didn’t you come to us,” asked Jane Buccheri, a leader of Southwest Partnership, a coalition that includes the neighborhoods of Mount Clare, Hollins Market, Union Square, Pigtown and Franklin Square.

Residents listen to Jewell Benford, program director of the methadone clinic opened by UMMC for Baltimore's substance abuse program. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Jewell Benford, program director of the BSAS clinic, answers a question from one of the community representatives. (Mark Reutter)

Spearman apologized for not reaching out to the community, and said he and four colleagues were at last night’s meeting to open up a dialogue.

“If you have a specific concern, we’re receptive. We’re willing to work with you,” he said.

Community concerns “must be defined,” he warned, adding at one point: “I suspect you don’t want the program here, period.”

Bif Browning, a resident of Union Square since 2006, told Spearman, “If you’re going to give us problems, also give us benefits.”

He called on the University of Maryland to help restore a grocery store in the neighborhood. Other residents said better policing was needed, either through an extension of campus police patrols or an agreement between UMMC and the Baltimore City Police.

“You carry a lot of weight, and your positive presence should be felt every day,” said Dourakine Rosarion.

If Mayor Rawlings-Blake “wants to get her 10,000 new families,” she added, “she needs to backfill [this neighborhood] because people are moving out.”

“You Have a Long Way to Go”

Chris Taylor, president of the Union Square Association, told the officials, “You have a long way to go  to build trust. . .  I want a socially diverse neighborhood, but I don’t want all the city’s troubles dumped here.”

Betsey Waters, who lives close to the treatment centers on Arlington Avenue, insisted that either BSAS or BBH has to vacate. “Having both of these programs is unacceptable,” she said.

Several members said they would press the matter with the Abell Foundation, who sent an observer to the meeting.

Abell president Robert C. Embry Jr. said in an earlier interview with The Brew that the community should take up its concerns with Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

“It’s not our job,” he said. “We just bought the building.” Embry was out of the office and unavailable for comment today.

Many Patients Live in the Vicinity

Eric Weintraub and Jewell Benford, program directors at BSAS, said they were happy to answer community questions or concerns about the new clinic, but stressed that the clinic was here to stay.

Benford said that 45% of the clinic’s patients live in southwest Baltimore’s 21223 or “contiguous zip codes” (note: there are five such zip codes), and there was a pressing need for more facilities.

Treatment is proven to be more successful if patients live near their treatment facility, he said. He said the clinic “makes a concerted effort to ferret out those misusing their medicines” and disputed the notion that drug sales or nuisance crimes are caused by BSAS patients, who he said are well behaved.

That remark was disparaged and disputed by several speakers. Whether it involved BSAS or BBH patients, open-air drug dealing takes place regularly around Hollins Market just north of the treatment complex, they asserted. “People get drugs very easily around here,” said one speaker.

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