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West Side methadone clinic saves lives, but some neighbors remain unhappy

Hispanic United of Buffalo opened a methadone clinic on Virginia Street in Buffalo five years ago amid a rapidly growing opioid crisis that was claiming hundreds of lives.

It was met with criticism from neighbors and even the then-Erie County mental health commissioner who said it didn't belong in a residential neighborhood.

Today, the clinic has more than doubled the number of clients who come six days a week to get their methadone doses and Hispanics United plans to open another clinic, in Dunkirk, where objections are also being raised.

Neighbors of the West Side clinic in Buffalo say its clients loiter in the neighborhood and their idling taxis clog the busy, narrow one-way street. They also say they find used needles on the ground, and they've seen some of the clients sell "take-away" doses given to them on Saturdays.

Clients say the clinic has saved their lives.

Meanwhile, Hispanics United's parent organization, the Bronx-based Acacia Network, is under investigation by multiple agencies related to poor conditions and inadequate security at homeless shelters and housing programs it runs in New York City. There are also questions about ties between Acacia and a private security firm that handles security for those shelters – as well as security at Hispanics United's facility in Buffalo.

Eugenio "Geno" Russi, a retired parole officer, is the executive director of Hispanics United, and his brother, Raul Russi, a retired Buffalo police officer, heads Acacia, which bills itself as the largest Hispanic services agency in the U.S. The brothers are well connected in Buffalo, New York City and Albany and make frequent contributions to politicians.

Geno Russi said he understands people don't like having methadone clinics in their neighborhoods. But he believes his clinic saves lives.

"This is all rooted in stigma," he told The Buffalo News. "You know, we've been here five years ... People were worried that, you know, their kids were going to get raped, they're going to break into my house, stuff like that."

But he said the fears have not come to pass.

"We take the precautions to run a good operation and that we're friendly to this community," he said.

"This is where people come to get their lives saved," he said.

Houses and apartment buildings line 10th Street in Buffalo, around the corner from the Hispanics United Buffalo methadone clinic. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Alba de Vida

Even before it opened, opposition mounted to Hispanics United's methadone clinic.

Erie County’s mental health commissioner in 2014 called for the state to block the clinic, calling the proposed site “wholly unsuitable.”

A better site must be found to provide opioid treatment services,” then-Commissioner Ellery Reaves said in a letter to the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, also known as OASAS. (The agency was recently renamed the Office of Addiction Services and Supports.) “This site location is inconsistent with local requirements for the siting of opioid treatment services, and I personally believe it to be wholly unsuitable ... Serious questions have been raised regarding the provider’s commitment and capacity to monitor their patients while ensuring the safety of neighborhood residents."

Hispanics United responded by saying it had been holding meetings with the community to address concerns since 2012.

The state has no restrictions on where substance abuse treatment programs, including methadone clinics, can be located, according to a spokesman for the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports. "However, when a provider applies to establish any treatment program, including an OTP [opioid treatment program], a needs analysis is done to determine if there is a treatment need in the community."

The state green-lighted the clinic. Named Alba de Vida, it opened in October 2014 with a maximum capacity of 200 clients. By the next year, the clinic had about 225 people on its waiting list and sought to add more clients. That brought another round of criticism.

Methadone has been used for decades to treat opioid addiction. It reduces opioid craving and withdrawal and blunts or blocks the effects of opioids, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It's taken once a day in liquid, powder, tablet or diskette form under a doctor's supervision in a federally certified opioid treatment program.

Alba de Vida is located inside a renovated brick church next to Hispanic United's office at 254 Virginia St. Virginia is a one-way, one-lane street in a largely residential neighborhood. Open from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, the street is busiest in the mornings. Idling cabs line both sides of the street as clients go in through the metal door. There's a no loitering sign and multiple security cameras pointed at the street.

There's often a group of methadone clients standing or sitting in an open lot across the street. That's a designated area for them to wait for rides and smoke cigarettes.

It's no secret that heroin is readily available on the West Side. It's why some neighbors question the wisdom of putting methadone clients so close to where illicit opioids can be purchased.

In April, sheriff's deputies arrested a 29-year-old man on a charge of criminal possession of a weapon after he was allegedly seen injecting himself in a driveway off Garden Alley, around the corner from the clinic. The next month, deputies arrested a 61-year-old man one block from the clinic and found he had a plastic bag with half a gram of heroin inside, according to a police report.

But Russi said crime has gone down around the clinic, just as it has around the city, and that it's important methadone is available in an area impacted by the opioid epidemic.

"Smack dab" in neighborhood

D.J. Granville, who has lived a couple of blocks from the clinic for five years, wants to see the clinic moved.

"It should take place in a medical facility in the medical corridor, not smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood that's causing all these concerns," said Granville, chief of narcotics for the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

"We cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem," he acknowledged.

But he said he's witnessed drug transactions right outside the clinic and has found used needles on the ground throughout the neighborhood. He said he believes drug dealers are preying on the clients who are struggling with their addictions.

Chris Heeb opened his gym, Cross Fit Nickel City, a block from Hispanics United about six weeks before the clinic opened.

"It's not a great spot for it," he said. "But it hasn't totally ruined the neighborhood either. I thought it was going to be much worse."

Heeb called the taxis the worst issue around the clinic.

"They're stopping in the middle of the street. They are double-parked," he said.

As of Dec. 12, Alba de Vida had 526 clients in its opioid treatment program, most of whom come six days a week to get their daily dose of methadone, Russi said. About 61% are from the Buffalo area, he said.

OASAS lifted the cap on the number of clients for all three Buffalo methadone clinics, including Alba de Vida, but required them to increase staff.

Alba de Vida struggles with keeping up with staffing needs, Russi said.

"There aren't enough professionals that deal with this type of disease," he said. "So there's always a shortage for all of us."

Clients are told not to loiter outside the clinic, and his security staff keeps tabs on people who violate such rules, Russi said. The clinic sets up time slots for clients to spread out when they get their doses. The clinic also installed extra security cameras.

"We've been listening to the things that they've asked us to do," Russi said.

Russi cast doubt on suggestions that the clinic's clients are the ones who are leaving needles littered nearby.

"We don't dispense needles," he said, explaining that methadone is administered orally.

Alba de Vida does not participate in a needle exchange program. Russi speculated that heroin users buying drugs in the area are dumping used needles on Virginia.

"They don't want to get caught with that," he said. "This problem has been going on for years and years, right? I can't be the keeper of the community. But I'm trying to do my part."

Richard Hernandez is a former heroin addict and a client of the Hispanics United Buffalo methadone client. He says the clinic saved his life. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"Saved my life"

Richard Hernandez has been a client at Alba de Vida for the last three years.

"They saved my life," the 56-year-old Angola resident said.

Every day but Sunday, Hernandez takes a cab from Angola to get methadone at the clinic.

Hernandez, who grew up in the Bronx and the West Side, said he started using heroin when he was 32. Before that, he had used cocaine, and drank alcohol to come down from his highs. Then he started snorting heroin and "graduated to intravenous," he said.

Heroin ruined his life, he said. "I lost everything."

He estimated he's been arrested and put in jail 40 times, mostly for burglary and possession. He said he woke up countless times not knowing where he was. He once survived being stabbed in the heart.

Hernandez and Russi both recounted a day about three years ago, when Hernandez hit up Russi for cash at a gas station on Porter Avenue. Russi says he told him, "I'll give you $20 but I want you to come to the clinic on Monday morning."

Hernandez said he showed up, and has managed to stay off heroin ever since.

Methadone works, he said. "It sustains me," he said. "I wake up not sick. That right there is the dream life."

Hernandez thinks it's important for the clinic to be where it is. "It gives the chance to the drug addict to get help," he said.

Plans in Dunkirk

Hispanics United of Buffalo found itself in the spotlight last year when it proposed opening a methadone clinic in Dunkirk. About 10% of Alba de Vida's clients live in the Southern Tier, Russi said.

There are currently no facilities that can provide methadone in all of Chautauqua County.

Hispanics United's plan was to open one in a building across the street from a Catholic school, which caused an uproar. It obtained conditional approval from the state to have up to 400 clients there.

The plan came to light about the same time that UPMC Chautauqua, which was operating a substance abuse program in Dunkirk, got approval from the state to also dispense methadone. The hospital-based program's administrators were surprised when they learned that Hispanics United had been approved to open a clinic about three blocks from its site.

Andrew O'Brien, the former director of behavior health at UPMC Chautauqua, told The News he believed the hospital wouldn't be able to sustain its methadone program if there was a second clinic nearby. He said it didn't make much sense either. Buffalo, with a population of a little over a quarter million people, has three methadone clinics. He wondered how Dunkirk, with a population about 1/20th the size of Buffalo's, could fill two.

Then this November, the state approved a different plan by UPMC Chautauqua to open a 100-slot methadone clinic in the Jones Memorial Health Center in Jamestown.

Russi said Hispanics United still intends to open a Dunkirk clinic but is looking at two other locations instead of the one by the school.

"We decided to pull back," Russi said. "We decided that we didn't want to start off by being poor neighbors."

Under investigation in N.Y. City

In the meantime, the Acacia Network, the Bronx-based umbrella organization that oversees Hispanics United of Buffalo, has come under scrutiny regarding the shelters it runs in New York City.

The Acacia Network Housing Inc. is one of the largest providers of homeless services in New York City. It has received more than $1 billion in contracts from New York City's Department of Homeless Services since 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City investigators are probing Acacia's allegedly undisclosed ties to a security firm, SERA Security Services, which was founded by Acacia's CEO Raul Russi, the Journal reported.

Raul Russi, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Buffalo, was the first Hispanic police officer in the Buffalo Police Department, according to the Acacia website. He served for 15 years before he was shot on duty and retired. He is a former superintendent of the Erie County Correctional Facility. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed him chairman of the state Parole Board and CEO of the Division of Parole. He has also served as sheriff of New York City.

In Buffalo, the Acacia website says, he spearheaded the creation of the region's first residential substance abuse treatment program and started a Hispanic substance abuse prevention program, which later became Hispanics United of Buffalo. It joined the Acacia Network in 2011.

Hispanics United of Buffalo uses SERA security guards on Virginia Street.

SERA guards have provided excellent security for the Buffalo methadone clinic and the rest of the building, Geno Russi said. But Hispanics United now is in the process of finding another security company, he said.

Russi said the Acacia investigations have "no impact on us .... Whatever is going on in New York City is going on down there and it's not impacting us up here."

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