Dr. Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, toured a Baltimore addiction recovery treatment center Friday to amplify the Trump administration’s efforts to combat the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Visiting the 132-year-old Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon praised the organization for its work to fight addiction and provide stable housing without being a “big government program.”
On the day after President Donald Trump declared the epidemic a public health emergency, Carson said the crisis has reached starling proportions — more than 60,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, which was greater than the number of Americans who were killed in the Vietnam War — and addressing its consequences will take the strength of the public and private sectors.
“We gather to hold up the success of this mission, a sorely needed victory in our nation’s ongoing struggle with addiction and drug abuse,” Carson said in the nonprofit’s chapel to dozens of its clients and others.
“Our county could use more organizations like the Helping Up Mission, which doesn’t just give ‘three hots and a cot,’ but also provides direction and purpose to someone who wants to get clean.”
Trump’s declaration did not include new federal money to fight the epidemic, but it could increase access to treatment in Maryland.
About 1,200 people died in Maryland of drug- and alcohol-related overdoses from January through June, according to the state health department, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the previous period. About 400 of those deaths were in Baltimore, a 29 percent increase over the first half of 2016.
Deaths in Maryland last year surged 66 percent to 2,089, including about 700 in Baltimore. Health officials blame the increase, in part, on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent.
Dan Bradford, 58, said he sought assistance from the Helping Up Mission to escape homelessness. He met Carson briefly when the secretary stopped in the organization’s art room during his tour. Bradford said the Trump administration’s attention on the opioid crisis could lead the country in a “good direction.” But he warned that the problem is vast and will take significant resources to solve.
“The Helping Up Mission is a great place,” Bradford said. “I think they could use more beds. I know a lot of people who died from fentanyl. I was homeless and hadn’t done art in years. This saved me. The art just grew while I was here. I got my direction back.”
The Helping Up Mission is a Christian organization that each day serves 500 men facing homelessness, poverty or addiction. It offers overnight services to homeless men, including shelter, clothing, toiletries and meals. Its yearlong treatment program combines spiritual development using the Gospel, a 12-step treatment plan and therapy. Graduates can receive transitional housing.
The nonprofit receives state and federal money for capital projects, but its $8.6 million annual operating budget comes from a combination of donations and program revenue.
Carson’s visit drew a small group of protesters, who rallied to draw attention to the need for more affordable housing. Christina Flowers, an advocate for the homeless, interrupted Mayor Catherine Pugh’s introduction of Carson. She said the focus should be on fixing homelessness, not on fanfare to make the system look good.
“We realize there is a lot of work to be done,” Pugh said. She said homelessness and addiction require a holistic response.
Carson called the Trump administration’s attention to the epidemic decisive. He said the administration is pooling resources across state agencies, bringing international drug cartels to justice and working on both drug treatment and prevention.
Trump’s 90-day declaration allows the federal government to waive some regulations, including those that prevent large addiction treatment centers from receiving Medicaid payments, and may give states more flexibility to spend federal money on interventions. The president pledged to engage in a “massive advertising campaign,” to support research into nonaddictive painkillers and to expand telemedicine as a way to get more people prescriptions to powerful addiction medications.
Carson said HUD’s mission intersects with the fight against drugs.
“A lot of people get into pretty desperate situations and become homeless, and that desperation leads them into a vulnerable situation where opioids become the solution,” Carson told The Baltimore Sun. “The two go very much hand in hand. When we fight against homelessness, we’re also fighting in a preventative way against opioid addiction.
“A lot of people who become addicted, secondarily, because of the consequences of that, become homeless. We have to recognize that we’re very unlikely to reverse that downward spiral in their life unless we give them some type of housing security.”
Katie Kuehn, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Opioid Operational Command Center, said state officials were still evaluating the impact of the president’s declaration on state policy and the resources it could unlock.
"As the Hogan-Rutherford administration has consistently said, it will take a nationwide effort by the federal government in support of the states’ efforts to combat this national crisis,” she said in a statement. “Maryland was the first state in the country to declare a state of emergency, and we appreciate the federal government’s recognition that fighting this epidemic is a national priority.
“Turning the tide of this crisis is going to take everyone from the federal, state, county, municipal, and community levels working together with an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Public health advocates have questioned the Trump administration’s commitment. The president has sought cuts from Medicaid and the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said she supports the president’s focus on the opioid epidemic. But she’s looking for broader action — and a funding commitment. She said the need is urgent: studies show just one in 10 people with addiction can receive treatment.
“We must ... address the millions of people who already have the disease of addiction,” she said in a statement. “If they cannot access treatment, they will continue to fuel the demand for drugs and contribute to the rising toll of overdose deaths.
“Communities like ours in Baltimore City have lost thousands of lives from addiction for decades,” she said. “The science is clear. We know that addiction is a disease, treatment exists, and recovery is possible.”
Carson said he wouldn’t say whether Wen was “wrong or right” to say funding for more treatment is necessary.
“I will say that treatment is critical,” Carson said. “Probably where we may have a little disagreement is that, is all of this the government’s responsibility or is it all of our responsibilities as a society?
“I think the way we solve many of the problems that face us right now is through public-private partnerships. I particularity love this Helping Up Mission. This started out with just people caring about their neighbors.”