In Camden, concerns mount over methadone clinic

Dozens of residents expressed concerns over the relocation of a controversial methadone clinic into Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood. From left to right: residents Sean Brown, Tammy Goree, Patrick Duff, Tracy Wilkins, and Michael Zier.

A controversial methadone clinic’s plans to relocate into Camden’s Waterfront South neighborhood drew more than 100 residents to a city Planning Board meeting Tuesday night amid fears of how a facility with 1,000 patients daily will affect their community.

Urban Treatment Center intends to move from its location on Market Street across from City Hall to Bergen Square, a light-industrial area a mile away. It has occupied the downtown space for nearly a decade, but needs to make way for the new Rutgers-Camden School of Business.

Residents opposing the move shouted at board members as well as clinic owner John Holtsclaw and his attorney, Ed Sheehan, during a packed meeting that stretched past four hours over worries that relocating the clinic would usher more crime, drugs, and traffic into the community. At 10 p.m., dozens of residents waited at a microphone for their chance to address the board and no vote was imminent.

“You wouldn’t want to put a Dunkin’ Donuts across from a Weight Watchers. … So why would you want to put a methadone clinic in a drug setting?” community organizer Sean Brown asked the nine-member board.

“It could be the safest and most secure facility in the world, but when a patient leaves the building, they will be tempted by people trying to sell them the very thing they’re trying to get off of.”

Earlier this year, Brown launched an online video campaign against the clinic featuring those living in the area.

For years, downtown residents have complained about patients lingering after receiving treatment.

A majority of the clinic’s patients spend just 10 to 30 minutes undergoing treatment, Holtsclaw said.

But residents argued that the patients, many who are from the suburbs of Camden, wander around a nearby park after treatment to wait for transportation out of the city.

Patients who continuously linger will risk violating the clinic’s policy and lose access to the facility, Sheehan assured the board, though he said the clinic “cannot stop someone from walking on the street.”

Sheehan has said the site’s proximity to other services, such as Volunteers of America and Joseph’s House of Camden, would benefit those looking for additional support.

Even if the Planning Board approves the site plan, it still faces legal obstacles.

Neighborhood Center executive director Mike Landis filed a complaint in July to appeal the Zoning Board’s April decision to permit a methadone clinic in the new location to avoid discriminating against people being treated for addiction.

“This is going to be a population bomb that’s going to go off in this neighborhood,” said Landis. “We just recently got to the point where kids feel comfortable enough to walk to school, and now you’re going to drop 1,000 adults with opioid addictions into the neighborhood.”

Some officials say the relocation will make room for Camden’s burgeoning “eds and meds” corridor.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, City Council Member Angel Fuentes said the plan raises safety questions, but praised the site’s proximity to a major highway and its industrial location. In the midst of a national opioid crisis, Fuentes said, the city needs drug treatment centers.

“The city has made every good effort to move the clinic from the downtown area to an industrial site,” Fuentes said. “It’s sort of isolated from the rest of the community…. I believe this location could be helpful to those in need.”

Planning Board member John E. Gilliams was more skeptical, questioning whether the facility addressed ways to keep patients from wandering city streets after leaving.

The final site plan includes a six-foot high wrought-iron fence surrounding the property, meant to better separate the facility from the community. Security cameras would be placed around the building and the owner sent a request to NJ Transit for a bus shelter alongside the property.

The move comes after a $1.55 million agreement of sale between the building’s owner, Camden Recovery Holdings LLC, and the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors. The building on Market Street must be cleared by December 2018, said Kris Kolluri, CEO of the Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors. The university recently procured an architect to work on the building’s design within the next 14 months.