Methadone facility to open inside city church

Clinic for heroin addicts to share space in building

April 25, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

An East Baltimore congregation unveiled yesterday a groundbreaking concept in the Bush-era partnership of church and state: a methadone clinic that will operate from a house of worship.

The new Turning Point Clinic - designed to become the largest methadone facility in Maryland - will be a nonprofit organization separate from New Life Evangelical Baptist Church, the 200-member congregation that gave birth to it.

Addicts and churchgoers will use different entrances. But for the Rev. Milton E. Williams, pastor of New Life Evangelical, the two are deliberately in the same place.

"I believe Jesus is the author of all good things, including medicine," Williams said, explaining how he came to see passing out methadone, a narcotic used to wean addicts from heroin, as part of the church's work.

The $1.7 million Turning Point Clinic, paid for almost solely with city funds, will add 200 methadone treatment slots to the 3,800 already available in Baltimore when it begins taking patients next month. The clinic eventually hopes to have 3,000 treatment slots of its own, some of them residential, which would greatly increase the city's treatment capacity.

"It's tremendous," said Bonnie L. Cypull, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which administers drug treatment programs in the city and funds slots for the uninsured and underinsured. "It'll be 200 people who don't have to wait any more. I predict this will be full within a month."

"The exciting part about this place is the growth potential," she said.

Turning Point has been in the works for six years and got its start long before President Bush took office, pledging to make it easier for "faith-based" groups to get federal money for social services. But representatives of his administration were on hand at yesterday's ceremony to praise the church's work.

"I feel like crying, really, with joy, because this is a great day," said Clifton Mitchell, coordinator of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment's faith and community-based initiatives.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley noted the symbolism of the church and clinic's location at the east end of North Avenue, near the Baltimore Cemetery.

"It's a very, very short drive from the [Eastern District] courthouse to the Baltimore Cemetery," O'Malley said. "But right before that cemetery, there is a point you come to, where you can turn."

Williams said he came up with the idea to put the clinic in the church's lower level when he realized that spiritual counseling alone wasn't helping the parade of drug abusers who had come to him for help. Many weren't church members, but instead patrons of the food pantry the congregation runs.

"Giving them Jesus wasn't enough," he said. "We struggled with the issue, but when we came to grips with the idea of doing nothing, it would mean that our community would continue to deteriorate because of crime."

Other churches offer treatment or recovery programs, but they have typically been located in different buildings.

Israel Baptist Church set up nonprofit organizations for treatment, housing and job training across Chester Street from its Collington Square building. The Rev. Harlie Walden Wilson II has said he wants to keep government at arm's length from Israel Baptist.

Williams said he had no qualms about putting the clinic in the church building. He said clinic workers will not proselytize to clients, but will offer spiritual counseling to those who choose it. No one will be obligated to join the church.

Cypull said her agency would monitor the clinic monthly to make sure clients are not turned away based on their faith or required to attend church services. "They will be highly regulated," she said.

Methadone, a synthetic narcotic, has become widely accepted as a reliable - and controversial - treatment for heroin addiction. Scientists say it reduces withdrawal symptoms and allows people formerly bent on getting more heroin to function normally without getting high. For that reason, some longtime heroin addicts take up methadone treatment slots for years, leaving others to wait.

Theola Moore, a former New Life worshipper who does drug counseling, said she had no qualms about methadone being given out from the church.

"I don't think there's a conflict," she said. "If it's dispensed correctly, it always does its job."

O'Malley praised the willingness of the church and local elected officials to open the clinic so close to home.

"There are people who say we need more drug treatment," he said. "But nobody wants people to get healed in their own house."

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