Debate Over Moving Camden Methadone Clinic

By Brenda Flanagan

Volunteers walked through downtown Camden this week, handing out toiletry kits in purple bags and special cards urging people to call when someone ODs on opioids. They’re protected by New Jersey’s Good Samaritan Law.

“It’s OK to call the police and let us know when one of your friends are overdosing. We’re not here to make arrests, we’re here to help and preserve life,” said Camden County Police Department Lt. Gabriel Rodriguez.

“I think that’s very helpful because people won’t be scared to call, worry about they’re going to get in trouble if somebody’s ODing and everything,” said Camden resident Justice Gratton.

“Yeah, because people now ODing regular around here. Regular,” said city resident Bernard Hoke.

Hoke’s a Camden native and says heroin cut with fentanyl is killing addicts. Police say overdoses here are up 50 percent since 2014 — 60 percent of them from outside Camden City. But people feel afraid to dial 911 and summon help.

“The guy that died over here on Fourth Street, ODed. Mount Ephraim Avenue, ODed,” Hoke said. “Nobody wanted to call. Because it used to be if you called, you had something to do with it.”

“I lost my son here in the city, of an overdose,” said Patty DiRenzo.

Suburban mom DiRenzo’s now a fierce advocate. She feels a 911 call might’ve saved her son, Sal. She joined the group of cops and union reps handing out kits and cards and said people struggling with addiction need support.

“There’s a lot of shame put on them, and it’s not right. That’s why these kids don’t go for help. They’re embarrassed,” she said.

In fact, many don’t want to talk at the Urban Treatment Center’s methadone program, in downtown Camden. One thousand patients from across the county cope with their addiction here. But this facility — on prime real estate near City Hall — is being sold for development into Rutgers-Camden School of Business. A new methadone treatment center will be built a mile away in South Camden — across the street from a homeless shelter and a vacant lot where homeless people roll themselves up in tarps for warmth and privacy. Methadone clients call this area an open-air drug market — or set — and they don’t like it.

“I come here to recover you know. I don’t like being in a situation where there’s drugs everywhere, you know what I mean?” said Gloucester City resident Chris Johnson.

“If you put a clinic on a set, it’s like tempting us every single day. I don’t think that’s fair,” said Ashley Devlin of Palmyra. Where would she like to see it moved? “Out of Camden,” she said.

“I respectfully disagree with their observation,” said clinic lawyer Ed Sheehan. “The location is perfect. It will be fenced. … There’s easy access for people coming from outside the city.”

But it’s a problem for Vedra Chandler, associate director at The Neighborhood Center, a scant half mile away. She doesn’t welcome a major methadone clinic to her neighborhood.

“We’ve seen what happens at urban treatment centers. There’s people and patients waiting for treatment, waiting for meetings, waiting for attention and they’re forced to wait outside on the street with the general public. And this creates the disturbance and the nuisance the downtown residents have fought so hard to get away from,” she said.

“No community has ever kind of rolled out the red carpet and had a party for us to arrive,” said Endeavor House Medical Director Dr. Christopher Johnston.

But Johnston says siting a methadone treatment facility here could work well, if client access around the building is secure.

“These are going to be key items for the people who run this facility to look at and obviously adequate staffing to do crowd control in the parking area,” he said.

Methadone clients may resist moving to this location, but in the end, they have little choice. If the new clinic is built here, they will come here in their quest to stay clean.