Citing reports of drug dealing, loitering, littering and other nuisances, Hampden merchants and a Baltimore City councilwoman are calling on the state to close a 3-year-old methadone clinic that overlooks The Avenue.
"We want them shut down," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke advocated, saying the drug abuse treatment clinic, Hampden Health Solutions at the Rail Inc., has been a constant source of complaints since it opened in 2010 at 3612 Falls Road, overlooking West 36th Street and within walking distance of several schools and the Roosevelt Park Recreation Center.
"It's so pervasive," Clarke said before a meeting of the Hampden Village Merchants Association on Wednesday, referring to alleged drug-dealing outside the clinic. "Nothing has improved and it has ingrained itself in an area where thousands of students regularly go."
A short walk away are the public school system's Academy for College and Career Exploration, known as ACCE, and the city's Roosevelt Park Recreation Center.
The clinic, which is on a bus route, is open from 5-10 a.m. on weekdays, before most shops are open," but the activities don't cease when they close," Clarke said. "People are seeing (drug-dealing) in front of their faces."
Clarke said she and Councilman Nick Mosby, who also represents the Hampden area, are scheduling a community meeting for September and are asking that people take notes or photos as evidence of illegal or disruptive activity so that city officials can "build a record of issues of community concern."
"We need specifics," she told merchants at the meeting.
Clarke and Mosby are also asking people to email any comments to Donald Hall, director of quality control for the Maryland Opioid Treatment Authority, under the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Hall's email is email@example.com.
Clarke also said she would invite Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Joshua Sharfstein, former Baltimore health commissioner.
Although the methadone clinic is allowed to be where it is by city zoning right, "The state controls their certification and location," Clarke told the Messenger.
Merchants, who have complained frequently about the sale of prescription drugs and other disturbing activities outside the clinic, were quick to agree with Clarke.
"It's been nothing but problems," said Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, where Clarke spoke about the clinic and aide Stephanie Murdock handed out fliers about the planned community meeting.
Ray, who owns Atomic Books near the clinic, told the Messenger in 2011 that he often swept up empty prescription pill bottles outside his store, and that "It's like the Wild West here in the morning."
Also concerned is Lisa Ghinger, executive director of the Hampden Family Center, which helps Hampden residents with everything from after-school tutoring to paying utility bills.
"It's no secret that people need drug treatment in this community," Ghinger said. But she said she has personally seen people that she recognized as clients of the clinic selling drugs in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven convenience store across the street.
Ghinger also said a large crowd gathers in the 7-Eleven parking lot, at a nearby bus stop and in front of the clinic after it closes for the day, so that students walking to school or the rec center can't help but see them.
"It doesn't appear that there's any oversight by the clinic," she said.
Clarke, a longtime councilwoman said, "This is the least supervised and most invasive" of the methadone clinics she has dealt with in the city through the years.
The methadone clinic in 2011 posted a security guard at the building and installed a video surveillance camera to watch activity outside in response to previous complaints, program manager Tawanda Holder told the Messenger in 2011. She said at the time the clinic would expel any client caught purchasing or selling drugs and would hand clients a written memo, asking them to use two bus stops a block away on Falls Road instead of the bus stop on West 36th Street.
She also said at the time that she would ask the security guard to redirect anyone seen walking toward the bus stop on The Avenue to the bus stops on Falls Road.
On Wednesday, Jerry Shinensky, the clinic's clinical director, said he has exchanged emails in recent weeks with Ray about the merchants' complaints and in response, the clinic is adding an extra guard, or security "detail," to watch the street. But he accused merchants of jumping the gun in trying to close the clinic down, and of singling out the clinic as a magnet for drug dealers.
"I'm not going to say that it doesn't exist" at the clinic, Shinensky said. "Are we an easy target? Do we contribute to some degree? Sure."
But he said he doesn't think there is any more drug dealing outside the clinic than elsewhere around Baltimore, and that he doesn't want people to assume that everytime someone is standing at the bus stop, they are selling drugs.
Nonetheless, he said, "We're open to feedback and we have been implementing changes. It's a little unfair for someone to complain and then not give you time to implement the changes."
Shinensky also said the benefits of the clinic in treating drug abusers outweigh the problems they are causing, and he predicted that if the clients were not being treated, "it would bring additional harm to the community."