Baltimore officials are expected to approve a 15-year lease at the old Hebrew Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore, where they plan to open a center to help people addicted to heroin and other drugs so they're not taking up emergency room beds.
The stabilization or sobering center at 2700 Rayner Ave. in Mosher would serve around 30 patients at a time, helping them sober up safely and then connecting them with long-term drug treatment and other social services.
The city Board of Estimates, controlled by Mayor Catherine Pugh, is scheduled to vote on the lease agreement Wednesday morning.
Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, said the goal is to lighten the load hospitals face from the city's ongoing drug abuse and overdose death crisis. And, she said, to be "treating individuals that have a substance use disorder with the same urgency and compassion as we would any other disease."
Overdoses killed some 700 people in Baltimore last year, most of them involving heroin mixed with the potent synthetic drug fentanyl, a death toll that is quadruple the 2011 rate. An estimated 25,000 people in the city are believed to be abusing such opioids.
The proposed center is one part of a growing effort by government health officials to intervene in the worsening crisis.
State and local health officials have been working to get the overdose reversing drug naloxone into the hands of police, emergency crews, and the friends and family of people using drugs. Wen has warned the stocks in the city are getting low and advocates say there are still too few resources to help.
"It is frustrating that we know what works when it comes to saving lives from overdose and providing treatment," Wen said. "We just need the resources to achieve it."
Approval of the $275,000-a-year lease would mark a significant step toward bringing the stabilization center project to fruition, but obstacles remain and the center is unlikely to open until next summer at the earliest.
Baltimore officials had searched widely for a suitable location. Plans to set it up in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood fell through. And the city is still seeking to raise as much as $3 million a year from hospitals and charities to get the center up and running.
The center's landlord would be a company owned by the nonprofit Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. Gary Rodwell, the group's executive director, said he hopes the center will spark the revival of a facility that was once a key health care provider in the African-American community. He also hopes it would signal the beginning of a broader resurgence in the area.
"That's what everyone's hope and expectation is," Rodwell said. "It's been a very long and winding road to make this happen."
Rodwell's group took over the building from Coppin State University in 2015 and planned to lease it to a health care provider. That didn't work out, but Rodwell said he thinks partnering with the city will make the difference this time.
The community development group will be in charge of approximately $15 million in renovations to the historic building, which has been vacant for almost three decades. Of that funding, $3.6 million is coming from state-issued bonds.
The stabilization center, which would be run by a contractor selected by the city, is expected to occupy slightly more than a third of the building.
Patients would be brought to the center by emergency medical personnel when they are judged to not need the more intensive care available at a hospital. Over the course of six to eight hours, they would sober up under the supervision of a nurse and then meet with a case manager who could connect them to medical treatment, help find them insurance and offer other services.
Once they've been discharged, patients wouldbe asked stay in contact with staff at the center for 30 days.
A major piece of legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year also calls for the creation of an emergency center for drug users somewhere in the state and told hospitals to do better in connecting drug use patients with other services when they leave.
Some lawmakers and advocates have proposed going even further, creating a facility where people could use drugs under supervision and get care if they choose. That idea has gained little traction.
And even though officials increasingly talk about drug use as a public health problem, the stigma around addiction remains. Projects to provide treatment in city neighborhoods still sometimes face opposition because they have a reputation for attracting crime and disorder.
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Rodwell said Pugh, whose district as a state senator included the proposed site of the center, has been very supportive. But at an event last week in Florida, Pugh questioned the wisdom of having drug treatment in the community, saying it can put a strain on already struggling neighborhoods.
"My solution is looking at drug addiction as an illness, creating treatment around hospitals that are not bumped up against neighborhoods and communities," Pugh said.
A spokesman for Pugh said she was not available to comment Tuesday.
Councilman John Bullock, in whose district the center would be opened, said he thinks the community is on board and has been kept informed about the plans.
Rodwell said his nonprofit worked closely with neighborhood groups to educate them about what the stabilization center would involve, even taking some community leaders on a field trip to see a similar facility in San Francisco.
"Certainly there were numbers of our community who have fears and who see the potential for the worst," Rodwell said. "But the larger voices in our community were voices that said we can all work collaboratively to mitigate any challenges that we think are going to occur."