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Shipshape drug center remains a dream adrift

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Its lines sagged in the water and there was no gangway to the USS Sanctuary, berthed several feet from a weedy state-owned pier in South Baltimore. Stephen J. Hammer had no way to board the former hospital ship one day last week and was frustrated at being so close.

That's been a near-constant state for Hammer. The former addict acquired the old Navy ship 13 years ago but has never quite realized his vision of using it to house recovering female drug users.

The 61-year-old Sanctuary has a rich history of service, bringing home prisoners of war after World War II and offering medical care to wounded servicemen during the Vietnam conflict. Hammer believed it could serve again, if the port of Baltimore hadn't fought his effort.

Over the years, the ship has become anything but a source of peace or comfort. Instead, it's become a 14,000-ton ghost ship on the local waterfront.

And the Sanctuary's future could slip further adrift. Its lease at the port of Baltimore expired yesterday. Hammer is without rent money or a government sponsor, and, for the most part, without allies on the waterfront.

Hammer once attracted powerful backers and millions of dollars, and he vows he'll do it again because there are people in need and he has a ship fit for rescue.

"There is still addiction all these years later," he said. "It hasn't gone away. I'm not going away."

Hammer's nonprofit group, Project Life Inc., took over the ship in 1993 from another group, Life International, which acquired the Sanctuary a few years before from the Navy for $10 in exchange for putting it to good use.

Hammer got to work negotiating with the port, where it could get space and services it needed.

Port leaders said then - and maintain now - that a drug treatment program has no place among the heavy and dangerous equipment of a working marine terminal. Some tenants and local lawmakers also bitterly opposed the project, saying it wasn't the ship's residents who needed protecting, but the port.

They feared damage to the image of the port as it was seeking more business. And they feared cargo theft. One terminal operator noted that there were thousands of imported cars parked yards from the Sanctuary that were valued at up to $40,000 each, with keys in the ignitions.

"To my knowledge, we've never agreed to such a use," M. Kathleen Broadwater, deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration that oversees the port, said last week about a residential treatment program.

"There's heavy equipment. There's a lot of movement and you can't always see people on the street. You've got to control traffic, even more so since [the terrorist attacks of] Sept. 11."

Undeterred, Project Life filed a lawsuit against the port in 1998 that landed in U.S. District Court. It accused the port of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and other statutes for denying recovering addicts space among the cranes and cargo.

To the port's astonishment, it lost the costly battle. The suit involved years of motions, briefings, delays and appeals that stretched into 2003 - about 8,500 hours of litigation involving dozens of lawyers and assistants that the judge in the case labeled a "colossal waste of resources," according to court documents.

The port was ordered to pay just $12 in damages to Project Life but $1.1 million in fees to Project Life's lawyers. Most importantly for the Sanctuary, the port also was ordered to sign a lease with the group. It did so on June 21, 2001, for a berth in Locust Point, away from the auto terminal but in the midst of a facility that handles another of the state's major imports: paper.

The location still irritates Morgan C. "Trip" Bailey, president of BalTerm, which handles paper products for the port.

"We handle on a daily basis an average of 125 trucks in and out of there," he said. "When a ship is working, there's a lot more activity. It's a dangerous environment, and we need to limit who has access."

The port does not want to use Pier 6, where the Sanctuary is berthed, for anything else because the dock has become too deteriorated, posing another problem for Project Life, which is responsible for upkeep.

The property also abuts former industrial land now being developed for upscale townhouses, whose owners could become new opponents of the ship.

The fight wore on Hammer, who at one point sold scrap lead and other metals from the ship's bowels to help support himself.

Broke and exhausted, he began to feel as though everyone from dogcatchers to housing-code enforcers were after him. He moved his family from Maryland to Pennsylvania a few years ago. Until recently, he focused more on his job as a freight broker.

The litigation also hurt fundraising, said Betty Jo Christian, Project Life's lawyer and a partner in Steptoe & Johnson LLP, a Washington law firm.

The state was an initial backer of the project, issuing bonds worth at least a half-million dollars, and approving its temporary docking at a South Baltimore pier. Project Life said government and private financing reached about $2 million and has been spent on a fresh coat of white paint and upgrades aboard the ship. Support also had come from several powerful business leaders, politicians and the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

"[The suit] really put a damper on everything," Christian said. "I thought the Sanctuary was a heaven, sent opportunity for the city and state. I didn't understand then, and I don't understand now, why they'd fight it. "

The program intended to serve up to 3,600 women a year on the Sanctuary, a former hospital ship commissioned in 1945. It measures 522 feet long and eight stories high and is equipped with three kitchens, bunks for 796 patients and medical facilities.

Treatment advocates say some statistics have improved since Project Life labeled Baltimore "the addiction capital" and began the push for the Sanctuary.

In Baltimore - which has the state's highest concentration of addicts, now estimated at 60,000 - the city Health Department recently reported that drug intoxication-related deaths dropped to their lowest point in a decade last year.

There were 218 deaths in 2005, down a third from the peak in 1999. In the 10 years ending in 2005, drug-treatment funding in Baltimore tripled to $52.9 million and treatment slots rose just over 60 percent to 8,295. Each slot can handle several people.

But the city needs a treatment network able to serve 45,000 a year, the advocates say. Last year, it treated slightly more than 23,000.

"There is a shortage of residential beds in the city because of the demands we're getting from criminal justice referral sources, the drug court specifically," said Adam Brickner, director of the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., a city organization that oversees drug treatment.

Facilities in the city that are open to recovering substance abusers are overwhelmed with up to 500 people a night, many who return over and over for help, Brickner said.

But state rules would require that Project Life establish a partnership with a city agency, which would in turn ask the state to license the program.

The process is the same no matter if funding comes from the state, the federal government or private sources, said C. Wayne Kempske, deputy director of the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, which regulates and finances drug treatment programs.

The license would require an inspection by state and fire officials to insure the health and safety of the recovering addicts living aboard. To be permanently moored, the ship also would need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and inspection by the Coast Guard.

"I don't know what it would take to get the program up and running because I don't know the condition of the ship," said Kempske, who knew of the Sanctuary but has not been on it. "I know at one time the state considered it acceptable for a drug-treatment program. But that was many years ago."

Kempske, a three-decade veteran of the department, said he personally wasn't sure a ship at the port would be a good environment for treatment.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's former health commissioner, said he toured the Sanctuary years ago and supported the program.

Beilenson, now seeking the Democratic nomination for Maryland's 3rd Congressional District seat, said the Sanctuary project is still a good idea.

The vessel is large enough to offer not just treatment but job training, which can help reduce public health care costs as well as crime rates by turning addicts into functioning members of society, he said

With monitoring of the ship-board inhabitants, he said the port would make a good home for the program because there are no residents to say "not in my backyard," he said.

"The best way to deal with addiction is to add slots everywhere," he said. "But people don't want addicted folks hanging out in front of the building next door even if they aren't doing anything wrong."

Possibly to sidestep some of the approval process, Hammer says his latest efforts are focused on moving an existing program to the Sanctuary.

He said he was exploring use of the ship to house a troubled Northwest Baltimore program run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services called Tamar's Children. It focuses on substance abuse treatment and mother-infant bonding. But he's yet to sign a deal.

The port said it does not intend to renew the Sanctuary's lease. Project Life hasn't paid rent in two years, putting the tenant in default and leaving the port with no obligations, said the port's lawyer, Peter W. Taliaferro.

According to its lease, Project Life had 60 days from the end of the lease yesterday to move the Sanctuary.

From the pier overlooking the ship, Hammer said he has a renewed sense of cause and is not budging. Neither is the Sanctuary, which sat perfectly still in the placid water.

The port wouldn't say if it would seek to seize it, sell it or tow it away.

"This absolutely can be done," said Hammer about the ship as a drug treatment center, even if the only creature aboard now is the large bird that built a nest on it.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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