Methadone the wrong medicine for this Camden neighborhood?

Michael T. Landis and Vedra Chandler outside the main entrance to the Neighborhood Center, which has for a century has offered help and hope in a struggling Camden neighborhood. Photo by Kevin Riordan

A replacement for Camden’s downtown methadone clinic may be built about a half-dozen blocks from the Neighborhood Center, long an oasis of help and hope in the city’s deeply wounded Bergen Square section.

From the center’s busy campus at Second and Kaighns, the vacant site at Sixth and Atlantic isn’t visible.

But Neighborhood Center officials say it's still far too close for comfort.

“We're a program for children and teenagers in a neighborhood the city seems to be deeming for adults who have addiction or homelessness problems,” says executive director Michael T. Landis.

Likening Camden's apparent approach to “redlining,” he points out that two overnight shelters and a day center already operate in the area. 

“We're going to get the least desirable [facility] coming out of downtown,” Vedra Chandler, the Neighborhood Center’s associate director, adds.

“It feels like a slap in the face.”

Making matters worse: The Neighborhood Center and other local stakeholders were not made aware of, much less consulted about, the clinic’s potential move.

As my colleague Allison Steele reported Tuesday, the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors has agreed to buy the Urban Treatment Center’s building at Fifth and Market for $1.55 million.

Relocation of the addiction clinic, in operation for a decade, will make way for development of the Rutgers-Camden School of Business building.

That project will help connect the campuses of Rutgers and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University into what officials predict will be an “eds and meds” corridor of downtown revitalization.

But despite the purchase agreement, “it’s not like somebody made a decision and that's the end of it,” board CEO Kris Kolluri insists. “The process will start now. This [project] will go through the city zoning board.”

The existing clinic, in a former Rite-Aid store across from City Hall and adjacent to a PATCO station, daily serves 1,000 patients, three quarters of whom don’t live in the city.

The large numbers of people — not all of them patients — loitering outside the place often creates a public nuisance that sometimes spills across Fifth Street into Roosevelt Park.

The new facility “should be a great asset not only for the city, but for the neighborhood,” says Edward Sheehan, the attorney for Camden Recovery Holdings, the clinic’s owner.

The project “will take a vacant piece of property and change it into a nicely designed facility that’s as attractive as a facility of that nature can be,” he adds. “There will be 24-hour security, fencing around the perimeter, and parking. In my opinion it will bring some new development.”

When the owners purchased the Sixth and Atlantic property about 10 years ago, “it was determined by the city that [a clinic] would be an appropriate use” in that light industrial zone, Sheehan says. A use variance will be necessary because a subsequent municipal zoning code revision prohibits methadone clinics anywhere in Camden, he adds.

Sheehan also says that a new facility offering services including methadone, a longstanding, if controversial, form of medical treatment for people addicted to heroin, will be “a critical element” in New Jersey’s anti-opioid abuse campaign.

As I said in an earlier blog post, I agree that addicted people deserve a chance to get clean, and that downtown is the wrong place for a methadone dispensary.

I also can see the logic behind Sixth and Atlantic, which is accessible from NJ Transit bus service and I-676, while at some distance from residential streets.

But after spending time at the Neighborhood Center on Thursday afternoon, I can also see the point Landis and Chandler are making.

A landmark in one of the most hollowed-out sections of the city, just a few blocks from Broadway’s most devastated — and drug-infested — stretch, the Neighborhood Center serves several hundred children and adults, five days a week; programs include day care, classes, and free lunch.

The center is home to arts organizations like the city’s celebrated Sophisticated Sisters dance troupe and the Camden Repertory Theatre group. It’s an essential piece of community infrastructure, deserving of more than lip service from the officials, most of them unelected, who are diligently trying to remake so much of the city.

“People in this town have been anxiously awaiting a rebirth. And now there actually are signs of a resurgence,” says Chandler, 36, who grew up in Camden and lives in the Morgan Village neighborhood.

“A clinic is necessary. I get that. But we’ve already seen what happens when you concentrate any sort of a problem in one place,” she adds.

"Adding this particular facility to this area is more an example of enabling certain behaviors rather than getting at a solution.”