Show and tell time for treatment center


January 14, 2001|By NORRIS WEST

The operators of a Brooklyn Park drug treatment halfway house say they've already proved themselves.

In 27 years, they say, Damascus House has done nothing but good things for the community.

Hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts have walked through its doors and improved their lives.

Stable homes and businesses have emerged around the building on Ritchie Highway near the Baltimore border.

The relationship between Damascus House and its community was reciprocal from the start.

When Brooklyn Park ministers started the center, they realized the community needed a drug treatment center more than a drug treatment center needed the community.

The sides should have mutual respect, they said, even when they disagree.

But the center's success and the harmony that has existed for more than a quarter-century don't seem to matter.

Damascus House is being shouted down by some of its longtime neighbors.

The shouting started when the community met to discuss a proposed zoning change and expansion that would nearly double the center's size.

The facility now houses 17 adult males; its proposal would add 15 beds and two small transitional houses.

Anne Arundel Health Officer Frances Phillips said she's not intimately familiar with the zoning matter but said Damascus House has been a stable and sometimes innovative halfway house.

She said she was impressed a few years ago when Damascus House wanted to conduct long-term evaluations to learn the outcomes of former clients. The county didn't have money for such studies, however.

Ms. Phillips said the county needs more substance abuse halfway house beds as officials seek to whittle waiting lists because an estimated 24,000 county residents need various forms of treatment and are not getting it.

Damascus House's operators say they responded to that need with their proposed expansion.

And that touched off outrage in Brooklyn Park. At a meeting last month, residents screamed that the center's operators, community leaders and public officials tried to sneak the expansion past them. (The Sun published an article on the proposed expansion in May.)

The furor and rumors were rampant. Some had heard that Damascus House wanted to build a 60-bed facility.

Others said it sought to house sex offenders.

The meeting wasn't conducive to listening.

Lost in the shouting were real concerns of residents. The expansion plan is a big deal. Although Damascus House has done an admirable job of caring for 17 adult male clients, residents are right to question whether the operators can handle 32 people in four nearby buildings.

Residents' main concern is that the expansion could rock property values in the blue-collar community of single-family homes.

That is a concern that Charles Mooneyhan, Damascus House's program director, must address.

Mr. Mooneyhan didn't get much of a chance to speak -- or be heard -- when he met with residents last month. He will meet with them again Feb. 12. He promises to bring data showing that the existing center has not hurt property values.

He also should give every resident a tour of the existing center.

When I visited Damascus House unannounced in the early afternoon Thursday, it was clean and neat.

Only one resident was on the premises. Sixteen men had left for work, and another was eating lunch, preparing to leave for his job at the Naval Academy.

In the living room was a large television set and sofas arranged in a U-shape. Sports are the priority in disputes about what to watch.

Each bedroom sleeps four in twin beds, with under-the-bed drawers and five-foot tall closets that have padlocks.

Some residents have Bibles and other books near their beds. One has eight pairs of shoes.

Mr. Mooneyhan runs the center with Carroll Matanoski, the executive director, and John "Pete" Brandon, the case manager for all 17 clients. All three have histories of substance abuse, and they have worked together for 10 years. Mr. Matanoski and Mr. Brandon have known each other for 25 years, and Mr. Mooneyhan is a Damascus House alumnus. The nonprofit center employs two other managers. The place is staffed 24/7.

Clients come from all backgrounds. They have completed more intensive drug programs, including detoxification. The halfway house helps ease them back into society.

When they reach this point in their recovery, they're not interested in making trouble, Mr. Mooneyhan said.

"Most guys want to change," he said. "They don't want to live the way they lived before, so they want to get along."

Damascus House's operators make a good case for their existing center. Now, with their grand plans to provide a needed service, the ball is again in their court. They must make a case that an expansion will help the community without hurting it.

As for residents, they are right to raise questions, but they also should listen.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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