Triple homicide brings attention to city's unlicensed group homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A triple homicide Monday night inside a drug and alcohol recovery facility in Remington has opened a window into a cottage industry in Baltimore - small, unlicensed and unmonitored group homes where recuperating addicts and alcoholics go to live.

"This is a totally unregulated, uncatalogued set of services," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner. "There are many hundreds, if not thousands, in the city."

Most are well run, fill a need and are not required to hold government licenses, officials said yesterday, but concerns about the Remington facility have prompted a state inquiry.

Investigators from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, a unit of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, do not believe the facility has a license, and they are trying to determine whether it should have one, said Donald Hall, the director of quality assurance for the ADAA. Providing treatment for drug or alcohol addiction without a license is a violation of state law, he said.

"It's really going to depend on what exactly they were doing and to what extent they were doing it," Hall said.

It's unclear what services were being provided at West 27th Street and Sisson Street. The nonprofit Club 12, formed in May 2003, bought the property in July 2003. It was not receiving state funding, and it was unclear how many facilities the corporation runs, state officials said.

The corporation's three directors - William W. Cunningham Jr., Manley H. Cosper III and Christine E. Blubaugh - could not be reached for comment yesterday.

According to its incorporation papers, Club 12 was designed to provide a meeting place for members of alcohol and drug addiction recovery programs, transitional housing for alcoholics and drug addicts, and "any service for alcoholics and drug addicts to help them recover."

"That would be questionable," Hall said of the services.

If investigators determine the facility was providing treatment without a license, they would confer with the state Attorney General's Office to determine sanctions, Hall said.

Also yesterday, city officials said the facility was operating in an area where zoning prohibited it. Zoning changes have been proposed to the City Council that would loosen the rules, but even those changes would not permit the facility, city officials said. Though there are several houses, the area is zoned for industrial purposes.

"This use is not permitted in that area, nor would it be permitted under those proposed changes," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Zoning officials are investigating, she said. They typically try to bring violators into compliance, and if violators refuse, officials take them to court.

"I think that the vast majority of group homes are well-run," said Ellen M. Weber, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "I don't know anything about this particular group home, but from my understanding, the situation itself is an aberration."

The city's vast array of small recovery facilities was cast into the spotlight late Monday when three men were shot in the head and killed inside 541 W. 27th St., a building at the end of a block of Formstone rowhouses. A fourth man broke out a second-story window and escaped, while he was shot at again by someone leaning out the window, city police said. The man who escaped suffered a gunshot wound to his back.

Police did not release names yesterday because their families had not been notified, but detectives said all three victims lived at the facility. They did not say whether the fourth man lived there but said he is expected to survive.

One of the victims might have been killed over a debt, police have said. All the victims were in their 30s or 40s.

The killing could reverberate more broadly across Baltimore's drug and alcohol treatment community, Beilenson said:

"I'm afraid this is going to potentially raise community ire around the city."

He said the facilities are needed to help serve the city's estimated 65,000 addicts. They offer recovering addicts and alcoholics a place to live after leaving long-term treatment and before returning to their homes. Some former addicts stay in group homes for months before returning to their families. They say it is easier to live with people of similar backgrounds.

But some have already been the subject of dispute.

O'Malley recently convened a task force to try to come up with a solution for poorly run group homes. The group, which includes Weber and Bonnie L. Cypull, chief executive of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., has until the end of February to develop recommendations.

There has been growing community pressure to come up with a plan. Homeowners in some of the city's low-income neighborhoods have complained for years about fly-by-night operators who buy cheap, dilapidated housing, purchase a half-dozen cots and open a "group home."

Some such lesser-regarded operators make a living off clients by cashing their Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Emergency Housing and Medical Assistance checks. Even then, the income is marginal. TEHMA assistance amounts to about $180 in housing money and $120 in food stamps a month.

The standard of living and supportive services available at the various group homes in the city is well-known among recovering addicts, said Carlos Hardy, director of drug treatment and community outreach at the Citizens Planning and Housing Association in Baltimore. Hardy, who has talked with recovering addicts about group housing, said there are three levels of quality among the houses.

"We use the Three Little Pigs scenario," Hardy said. "There are houses of brick, houses of wood and houses of straw. There are some that are great that are brick and there are some on the fringe that wouldn't take much to convert from wood to brick.

"And then there are some straw houses that aren't willing to improve and we'd be better off without them."

There are about 40 large, state-licensed, government-funded addiction treatment centers in the city, Beilenson said. They are tightly regulated by health officials and offer clinical and medical services, such as methadone treatment.

But the unknown number of small, unregulated facilities - potentially hundreds - is made up mostly of "ad-hoc setups where four or five" people live, Beilenson said.

He said he wants Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., a quasi-governmental group that oversees the city's drug treatment efforts, to compile a list of all of the city's small, unregulated facilities. He hopes to push for better community-facility relations, as well as a rating system for the facilities.

Another idea is to set aside money that group-housing operators could access with the understanding that they would meet certain guidelines.

"This is a system that is crying out for support in a number of ways," said Hardy, the housing advocate. "Financial support, standards and integration into the treatment continuum."

He said court, probation and medical officials regularly refer drug addicts to group housing.

"If you are sending them, what are you expecting?" asked Hardy. "What are you doing to make sure that those services are in place?"

Those who live near the Remington facility said they had little trouble with it until Monday.

Peggy Marousek has lived in the home next door for 70 years. She said one of the directors - Cosper, she believes - approached her when the facility opened in 2003.

"They said, 'We want to be good neighbors. We'll stop in to talk. We'll take you to the store,'" she said. "I liked that."

But yesterday she remained rattled. "I'm still shaking," she said.

Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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