NIAGARA FALLS – The other side of the opiate crisis is people turning their lives around – getting jobs, having families, contributing to society. To get there, many need methadone.
Northpointe Council’s methadone clinic has been trying to be the fix for what is broken in people addicted to heroin, pain pills and other opioids.
Niagara County had the 8th-highest rate of opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 population of the 62 counties in New York state from 2009-2013 and the 26th-highest rate of opioid-related hospital ER admissions in 2014.
But as the clinic tries to help a growing number of users break their habit, Northpointe has struggled for nearly a year to persuade Niagara Falls residents and leaders to allow it to move to a larger space where it can treat more addicts.
Here’s a look inside the clinic that no one wants next door.
The Northpointe Council’s methadone clinic is located in the Niagara County Trott Access Center at 11th Street and Ashland Avenue in Niagara Falls. More than 100 people visit daily for a dose of methadone to help them break a drug habit that’s worse. It’s the only methadone clinic in Niagara County.
To get to the clinic, you have to go through a door in the back of the building.
Inside, there’s an L-shaped waiting room. The stark room has nine mismatched chairs, no pictures on the walls and a few staff donated magazines. The walls are painted in “county beige.”
There is a single desk, where an armed guard, per DEA regulations, sits facing a wooden door during designated dosing time – every morning from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Behind that door is the methadone. Each client walks up to a window in the door, gives their identification number and a nurse gives them a liquid dose of methadone, then makes sure they swallow and allows them to leave, explained Northpointe program director MaryAnn Campanella. There is also a bathroom if a toxicology screen is needed.
Diversion, passing a dose to an unintended recipient, is always a concern. People have been known to put cotton balls in their cheek to absorb and later share the methadone, Campanella said. Some will spit their dose into the mouth of a another person.
Clients have appointments to get their daily dose of methadone. They’re in and out of the clinic in one to three minutes.
Dosing times are closed to the public, but Campanella described how it can be standing-room-only, with some clients bringing their children before school.
The clients on a day last week included a mother of four, who said she would have died without methadone and is holding her first steady job in a long time. Another man, a client at the clinic for 22 years, is a school board member with a good job. A third had a rough life growing up on the streets, trying to “game the system,” but has since been able to live a stable and productive life with a wife, children, grandchildren, and a good job.
Deeann Schumacher, 29, of Niagara Falls, has had her children taken away due to her drug use, but she said with methadone she has been drug-free for two years and is holding her first steady job. She is petitioning to get her children back and feels confident about the outcome. She said she started smoking marijuana at age 13. She later turned to cocaine, illegal prescription pills and heroin.
“I’ve had quite a few friends die from overdoses and it’s getting worse. It’s a dirty drug,” said Schumacher of heroin. “I will never go back. It hasn’t crossed my mind.”
Steve Svida, 48, of Niagara Falls, said he decided to seek help because he was sick of chasing the high to avoid withdrawal. He said he got addicted to pills prescribed for his rheumatoid arthritis.
“They make you feel good in the beginning, but after a while it consumes you,” said Svida. “I feel great (now.) I’m living a normal life. If you have the desire to get clean, it’s the best place you can come.”
But for every client with a success story, there are hundreds of others on a waiting list who don’t have that chance.
The clinic is too small to stem the tide from the growing addiction crisis.
Almost 200 more people are on the waiting list there. Six of them have died over the past year.
“Why didn’t you call sooner?” mourning family members ask, said Campanella. “It’s truly heartbreaking.”
Methadone is used to flood addicts’ opioid receptors, so those with addictions won’t get sick or get cravings as they withdraw from an opiate.
“It’s like a really bad flu. They can’t die from it, but they are really sick,” Campanella said of withdrawal. “The methadone floods these receptors so they are able to get their lives back on track.”
The methadone clinic has been at the site for nearly 40 years, with Northpointe taking over the operations in 2009.
Carrie Clare, director of treatment, said most people in the neighborhood around Trott, didn’t even know the clinic was there until Northpointe proposed moving it to 606 Sixth St.
Residents, the City of Niagara Falls administration and City Council fought against Northpointe’s moving plan. At public meetings, the clients in the methadone clinic were painted with a broad brush as dangerous criminals, addicts who would hang around and destroy the character of a neighborhood the city was trying to update and improve.
“At the City Council meeting, they really degraded us and the individuals that come here as clients. It was awful and demeaning,” said Clare.
Svida was offended at the characterization.
“I’m a tax-paying citizen,” said Svida. “I hope it never gets to where its one of their sons, one of their daughters, one of their brothers (who needs methadone.)”
Schumacher said that she was angry at the people who fought the methadone clinic’s proposed move to Sixth Street.
“It would be better to have a methadone clinic in your backyard instead of all these drug dealers,” Schumacher said.
After a nearly nine-month fight, Northpointe got the OK to stay at Trott after Niagara County, which owns the building, gave them space to expand their footprint from 3,800 square feet to approximately 9,000 square feet. Northpointe also received $150,000 in state funds and the City Council will vote on an additional $50,000 to aid in the expansion.
Mayor Paul Dyster said the council will also vote to kick in an additional $100,000 of the $400,000 cost to pave a gravel parking lot across the street from Trott to provide 67 additional parking spaces.
Niagara County Legislator Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said the funding will allow the county to keep Northpointe’s rent on the renovated space at Trott at the same level Northpointe would have paid if it had moved to Sixth Street. He said that, three years ago, there wasn’t room for Northpointe to expand at Trott. However, the second floor is now mostly vacant and offices on the first floor will be relocated to make room for Northpointe to move into a former day care’s site on the first floor.
The new, larger clinic will allow Northpointe to treat more clients. It will expand from 120 to 250 clients in the spring.