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Possible methadone clinic expansion adds to unease in Lower West Side

Residents of the Lower West Side have settled into a wary coexistence with a methadone clinic that opened last fall amid the neighborhood’s vehement opposition.

That very well might change.

The clinic run by Hispanics United of Buffalo and the Acacia Network now proposes to treat 100 more people addicted to opiates on top of the 200 it already serves.

Neighbors, troubled by what they call a resurgence in drug-related incidents near their homes, are not happy about the possible increase in addicts coming to their neighborhood.

An expansion at the clinic could push the community “toward a tipping point,” said Colleen Roberts, one of the neighbors.

“You’re pulling a huge number of people into a small residential neighborhood," she said. “It seems that it might strain the neighborhood.”

An influential elected official has offered residents support.

Those running the clinic on Virginia Street should hold off on expanding until they build trust in the community, said Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen.

“Let’s work on the issues that are being brought forward, whether they are real, perceived or anything else,” Pridgen said. “Then we can move forward.”

Hispanics United calls the expansion necessary.

The opiate addiction epidemic sweeping New York State “isn’t getting smaller,” said Eugenio Russi, the agency’s executive director.

The clinic enrolls only 42 people in a drug and alcohol abuse counseling program. But 200 people come daily – the clinic is closed on Sundays – to receive methadone to fight their addictions.

Some 190 people are on the methadone program’s waiting list.

“If we didn’t have a problem, we wouldn’t have a waiting list,” Russi said.

That is why the clinic, named Alba de Vida, which means “dawn of a new life,” wants to increase its cap in the methadone program to 300 people.

Those living near the clinic are concerned about the effect of such an increase.

“I understand that there’s a mass opiate addiction problem,” Roberts said. “It’s just the location that we’re worried about.”

Many residents attribute the drug activity and traffic problems they see in the neighborhood to the clinic.

“You just brought back the criminal element into a community that got rid of the criminal element,” said Tom Gleed, a West Tupper Street resident.

Though the neighborhood is stable, an increase in people getting treatment at the clinic could overwhelm it, Roberts said.

“The bigger it gets, the more problems we’ll see,” she said.

Daily dose

The people who show up at the clinic are from all over the area.

About one-third of those who visit the clinic come from the nearby Grant-Ferry, Front Park, Riverside and Black Rock neighborhoods.

About 29 percent live in other parts of Buffalo, according to the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

The others come from Erie County towns such as Amherst, Hamburg and Tonawanda, while some come from Niagara Falls and Lockport in Niagara County, and one comes from Jamestown.

Clients don’t make appointments. They come at their convenience between 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. The clinic is the busiest in the morning as children are headed to school.

In less than two hours on the morning of June 10, Alba de Vida had 41 visitors. Some rode bikes or walked to the clinic. Others arrived in taxi cabs and medical transport vans.

Still others drove their cars or got rides from friends or family. Most drivers waited while their passengers got their doses of methadone.

Most of those receiving methadone treatments were in and out in 5 minutes or less, but some stayed inside for 20 minutes.

The consequences of not getting treatment can be life or death.

Last year in Erie County, 116 people died of opiate overdoses, 15 more than the previous year, according to the Erie County Department of Health.

About one-half of the county’s deaths happened in Buffalo. Roughly 38 percent were in the suburbs, and rural areas accounted for the rest.

The state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, known as OASAS, allows Alba de Vida to serve 400 people – 200 in the methadone program and 200 in its drug and alcohol abuse counseling services.

Three other methadone clinics operate in the Buffalo Niagara region. The lone Niagara County methadone program can serve up to 85 patients, according to the substance abuse agency.

The two other methadone clinics in Erie County, both in Buffalo, are bigger than Alba de Vida. The program at Community Action Organization of Erie County has a capacity of 430 patients, and the clinic at Sisters of Charity Hospital has a cap of 650 people.

Those who run Alba de Vida consider the program a success.

Patient surveys have yielded positive results, and Russi said those who come for treatment feel they are treated with dignity and respect.

“We don’t pass judgment,” Russi said. “We don’t want to add to their crisis.”

A ‘mixed bag’

For neighbors, living close to a methadone clinic is “a mixed bag,” said Jonathan White, president of the Allentown Association.

While some residents complain about the clinic, others, like Parrish Gibbons of 10th Street and Jodi Sample from West Tupper Street, didn’t know the facility was open.

Russi and Ellen Breslin, Alba de Vida’s program director, have been open to discussing issues with the community, White said.

“I don’t want to give the impression that the operators of the clinic have not tried to mitigate the issues,” White said.

The state requires the clinic to hold community meetings. Two have been held so far, one in February and one in May. About 20 people attended each, Russi said.

The clinic also set up an advisory board. It meets monthly, and membership fluctuates between five and 10 people.

Roberts called the advisory board “an honest attempt” from the clinic operators to listen to the community.

“I can honestly report that it seems that it’s doing OK,” Roberts said of the clinic. “But we’re still reserved about our judgment.”

Some people who come to the clinic like to stick around after they finish treatment, resident Juni Torres said.

Torres, 21, drops off his nephew at a nearby school bus stop every morning and picks him up in the afternoon.

“People like to stay around, and I think that’s not good,” Torres said. “You got what you came for. Just keep on walking.”

Those treated at the clinic must sign a “good neighbor policy,” which includes rules like no smoking, Russi said. Guards and clinic staff monitor the ban “pretty rigorously,” he said.

Vigilant neighborhood

Neighbors are watching, too.

Vanessa Pomales, who lives on 10th Street, was still in her pajamas when she sat on the steps of a building at the corner of Virginia and 10th streets at 8 a.m. one day earlier this month.

A neighbor told Pomales he saw people sneak into the building to use drugs.

“I’ve been hanging around here for a couple of days to see what’s going on. I’m gonna do it in different hours,” Pomales said.

In March, residents saw a “noticeable uptick in drug activity” in the area around the clinic, White said.

On the morning of June 24, for example, police officers arrested a 53-year-old man at a parking lot across from the clinic. The man, who was carrying needles, had two outstanding drug warrants, one for felony criminal injection of a narcotic drug and the other for possessing a controlled substance. The warrants were related to an incident in late May on Virginia Street.

“This is in fact one of the things that the community was particularly concerned about,” he said. “It’s an opportunity of prey. Drug dealers see drug addicts as people who have a weakness.”

Several residents told The News they have seen more drug buys since the clinic opened, as well as more people using drugs on the streets. Neighbors also reported finding needles on streets and sidewalks.

Pomales said she found several needles not far from the clinic about five weeks ago.

“It’s not like they don’t have a disposal,” Pomales said, referring to the sharp-objects drop box outside the clinic.

Alba de Vida’s patients can use the drop box, but some don’t, she said.

“This is not their neighborhood, so they don’t care,” she said.

Carmelo Parlato bought a building at Virginia and West streets in 2013 with plans to renovate it and then move into one of the apartments.

But he said the area changed after the clinic opened.

Parlato said he witnessed several drug deals, some during the day, and found five used needles in a lot he owns next to his building.

From his building, Parlato took photographs of what he thought looked like drug deals and sent them to police, and then received a threatening phone call from an unknown number after making the report. Since then, Parlato visits his building less frequently.

Gleed, the West Tupper Street resident, said he spotted a woman near his house earlier this month injecting a substance into her arm.

A few days later, Gleed saw the same woman, with a man, and both were using drugs. Gleed called the police and they arrested the man. The woman fled.

Gleed and other residents said most drug activity happens at the corner of Virginia and West streets. The intersection is only a block from Alba de Vida – but out of view of the clinic’s security cameras.

“The dirty underside of the drug culture moved back to the neighborhood,” Gleed said.

Stigma or reality?

Russi said the increase in needles has nothing to do with the clinic. Alba de Vida doesn’t use needles, he said. It dispenses methadone orally.

“The increase in needles is simply because more people are using heroin,” he said. “And the needles are not confined to the Lower West Side, but the entire city.”

Alba de Vida’s location, however, concerns neighbors who say drug dealers use several houses not far from the clinic to sell heroin.

While some residents say the drug dealing has emerged recently, others say it has existed for a decade.

“You have drug houses in the area and drug dealers will prey on addicts that are in a vulnerable situation,” said Common Council Member David Franczyk, whose district includes the neighborhood.

Franczyk and Pridgen have passed along information from the neighborhood to police.

So far, police reports don’t seem to reflect the neighborhood becoming more violent since the clinic opened.

But measuring crime in the neighborhood can be difficult.

“Some things are reported and some things are just accepted,” Pridgen said.

Hispanics United has invested in the community, Russi said, so it’s disheartening to hear negative comments from neighbors. Many of the complaints are not based on reality but on a stigma about methadone clients, he said.

“No matter what I say or what I do, it’s never going to be good enough,” Russi said.

But the clinic has responded to feedback from neighbors, he said. Members of the Virginia, Edward, Trinity, Tupper, Elmwood Block Club, or VETTE, have been particularly active.

Shortly after the clinic opened, neighbors complained about bicycles tied to trees and traffic signs, Russi said.

In response, Hispanics United bought a bike rack.

The clinic also made the area around the building smoke free.

Pridgen stressed listening to neighbors.

“Their perception is their reality, regardless of what a police report says, regardless of what a 311 report says,” he said. “You have to listen to what the people are saying.”