City needs a new approach to addiction

July 13, 2004|By Michael Sarbanes and Carlos Hardy

BALTIMORE'S ZONING BOARD sought in 1959 to close two homes for alcoholics operated by the Flynn Christian Fellowship Houses on grounds that rehabilitation homes did not belong in residential areas. This sparked a controversy that the City Council resolved three years later by requiring that such homes receive council approval before opening in residential areas.

Baltimore is wrestling with this issue again, but in a very different context. The region's substance abuse addiction problem now includes heroin and cocaine as well as alcohol, and drug treatment is widely recognized as effective and essential to the future of the Baltimore region.

And the legal landscape has changed fundamentally. Court rulings on the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act make clear that Baltimore's 1962 solution is now illegal. These laws state that people recovering from drug addiction are protected from discrimination because of their disability. Yet Baltimore's ordinance process specifically singles out this group.

The council is now considering two pieces of legislation, introduced by Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, to make the city's zoning code comply with federal law. If the council fails to act, the courts are almost certain to impose a solution.

We believe there is a new way of operating that would be better than expensive litigation that the city is bound to lose. The council needs to reform the zoning code to bring Baltimore's zoning standards into compliance with the law. But these reforms should be part of a broader strategy to deal with the question that the city wrestled with in 1959: How do you meet the need for treatment in a way that strengthens communities? Here's how:

Organizations such as Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems (BSAS), the quasi-public entity under the city Health Department that funds virtually all city treatment programs, must insist that treatment programs act as "good neighbors" - making themselves known in the community, communicating openly with residents and participating in community efforts to improve the quality of life.

BSAS should share its research with the public and invite comment about the placement of treatment facilities to ensure they are in locations that address demonstrated needs.

The mayor's Office of Neighborhoods should act as a one-stop shop, coordinating effective city agency responses to complaints about unlicensed group homes that are not funded by BSAS. These homes, which are not publicly regulated or funded, are not affected by the proposed zoning reforms. But they are subject to the same laws that govern other residences.

The city and state should develop sources of funding and standards for unlicensed group homes. Many of these recovery homes don't have licenses because they don't provide clinical treatment or have clinical staff, but they do provide invaluable services that deserve public support and are community assets. Others are overcrowded and provide very limited support for residents.

How might these four steps be better for communities and for the city?

Drug addiction has devastated neighborhoods for 40 years while there has been too little treatment to stem the damage. Treatment programs often have tried to operate under the radar in their communities, largely because providers feared communities would stigmatize programs and their participants.

Programs have found locations wherever they could, not necessarily as part of a larger strategy to rationalize or improve the treatment system. Once established, programs have often remained isolated from the communities where they are situated. So the tremendous positive energy that comes from the recovery process has not connected with community efforts to improve the quality of life.

This new way could mean that more drug treatment programs would be active and involve community residents. Communities would gain a partner in addressing a range of community issues, including the addiction that lies at the heart of many problems. The treatment system could evolve into a rational plan to match treatment availability with need in the community.

And those in recovery, who often feel a powerful desire to give back to the communities that have been hurt by their addiction, would be connected to and welcomed by communities as part of the recovery process.

Changed times and changed laws mean that Baltimore must take a new approach to this old issue. After 40 years, let's figure out how to make it work for everybody.

Michael Sarbanes is executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. Carlos Hardy is its drug treatment director.

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