Sunday, February 25, 2024

Rock and a hard place: Getting to the bottom of concerns over The Healing Place treatment center

The facility meets a deeply-felt need in a region that has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. That means it will be tough going for those who disagree with the planned location to make their case.

Lower Cape Fear Hospice borders the future site of The Healing Place. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
Lower Cape Fear Hospice borders the future site of The Healing Place. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Update Wednesday, Jan. 9 – Wilmington City Council again voted to continue the issue; the vote was first continued on August 21, then again on Nov. 7, and again on Dec. 4.

WILMINGTON — It’s a difficult and uncomfortable impasse: on the one hand, a desperately-needed substance treatment center, on the other hand, local businesses – including the region’s largest hospice care facility – that feel they weren’t included in the process of selecting the location, a location that is causing them serious concern.

Related: Opioids in the Cape Fear: ‘One of the most frightening issues of our time’

The planned treatment center, The Healing Place, is being proposed by New Hanover County and Trillium, the organization that manages state and federal funds for mental health and substance use issues over a 26-county area. The center will feature a non-medical detox center, and emergency homeless shelter, and a 100-bed residential facility (with the potential to expand to 200 beds).

While there’s little question the region needs a drastic increase in substance abuse treatment capability, the would-be neighbors of Healing Place have concerns about the planned facility. Wilmington Health, Lower Cape Fear Hospice (LCFH), Delaney Radiology, and the Children’s Learning Center of New Hanover Health Network (CLC) have all expressed concern with the location of The Healing Place.

Several representatives of these groups, including LCFH CEO and President Gwen Whitley, have expressed frustration that their objection to the location of The Healing Place have been misrepresented as being against the treatment center in general, or that their objections are based on unsympathetic generalizations about those seeking substance abuse treatment.

Many of the groups plan to attend Wilmington’s City Council vote on a special-use permit for The Healing Place on Tuesday, Jan. 8; the permit is required because the location at 1000 Medical Center Drive is zoned office and industrial, and doesn’t presently allow for long-term residential use. The vote will decide, essentially, whether the public necessity of The Healing Place trumps the objections of its future neighbors.

Ahead of that vote, Port City Daily discussed these concerns with Trillium, New Hanover County, as well as the police department in Raleigh, where The Healing Place’s sister-site, Healing Transitions, is located.

Security concerns

View from a room at Lower Caper Fear Hospice. The fence, visible on the right, is the property of the future The Healing Place. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
View from a room at Lower Cape Fear Hospice. The fence, visible on the right, is the property of the future The Healing Place. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

A shared concern for the potential future neighbors of The Healing Place is security. According to Whitley, as well as an email circulated by CLC to parents, this concern comes from a variety of factors: the proposed “wet” shelter, the open-door policy without background checks, and the “peer security” set-up.

The “wet” shelter means the facility will not turn people away for being intoxicated or high (many shelters in the region are “dry,” which means evicting people for drug use or possession). The open-door policy means that, as opposed to some rehabilitation centers, residents are free to come and go as they please except after curfew — in fact, they are encouraged to do so, and the shelter’s location was in part based on access to public transportation. The peer security system means that residents who have successfully completed “higher levels of the program” will act as security at the facility; these residents will be overseen by administrative and program staff, according to Trillium.

For Whitley, a major concern was the number of people with substance abuse issues coming and going near the hospice center. At LCFH, each room is set up to resemble (as much as possible) a private apartment, and each has an access door. The idea is to make people feel as much as home as possible in their final days, but a side-effect of this is that the facility is more porous than a traditional medical facility.

“We’re not saying these will be bad people. But addiction is a disease, and we’re not talking about 200 people all being a concern, but certainly we feel that, given the number of people coming and going, and knowing that we’re here, it’s an issue,” Whitley said. “We have very powerful — the most powerful — medications here: oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl … it’s secured in double-locked boxes. But our concern is that someone comes looking, knowing it’s here.”

Law enforcement incidents

CLC’s email to parents also mentioned the absence of background checks and the number of violent incidents that have occurred at the Raleigh Healing Transitions location — a number which varies depending on who you ask.

Whitley and CLC cite “20 drug overdoses, 67 assaults, and 20 warrants served by law enforcement at The Healing Place” over the last six months.

According to Trillium spokeswoman Jennifer Mackethan, “Two years’ worth of data from the Raleigh Healing Transitions Program for men indicate only one call to law enforcement classified as a ‘fight,’ nine classified as ‘disturbance,’ and two classified as ‘assault.’”

According to data provided to New Hanover County Deputy Attorney Sharon Huffman by Chris Budnick, executive director of Healing Transitions, there were 250 calls for service to the men’s facility over a two-year period: 32 warrants, 20 disturbances, 18 overdoses, 8 refusal to leave, 3 trespassing, 2 assaults, 1 assault on an officer, and several suspicious person or vehicle calls.

Budnick notes in the email that the call data “may not support the [county’s] case.”

An email sent from Healing Transitions Executive Director Chris Budnick to Deputy County Attorney Sharon Huffman. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County)
An email sent from Healing Transitions Executive Director Chris Budnick to Deputy County Attorney Sharon Huffman. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County)

Mackethan added, “Any incident is unfortunate, but the history of the program in Raleigh and in Kentucky indicate that there is a very low incidence of these types of problems and they are readily addressed. We think it is very telling that the Raleigh men’s facility is located on a site that is being developed by the City of Raleigh as a major destination park (it has been called Raleigh’s answer to Central Park in New York City) and both City leadership and the surrounding neighborhoods are not only in favor of the Healing Transitions remaining in that location, they have approved plans for expansion of the facility.”

Sex offenders

Both CLC and LCFH have pointed to the number of registered sex offenders at Healing Transitions in Raleigh. The number changes with the population at the facility, but as of today there were eight registered sex offenders at the men’s campus (and four at the women’s campus), according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s online registry.

Mckethan said, “While we can’t comment on Healing Transitions in Raleigh and their practices, it is the decision of each program, but they would still have to abide by any regulations set forth about sex offenders and proximity to schools or child care facilities, etc.”

State law prohibits convicted sex offenders from residing within 1000 feet of a school or child care facility (staying at The Healing Place is considered residing, although it’s not clear if that’s the case for the emergency shelter). The CLC campus is about 500 feet away from The Healing Place property.

‘Not an elevated risk’

According to County Manager Chris Coudriet, the county has no plans to provide additional security for the area.

“No — and I say ‘no’ because we don’t view [The Healing Place] as creating an elevated risk,” Coudriet said.

Asked about these concerns, Coudriet said they stem from a misunderstanding of The Healing Place and how it differs from “other treatment centers in our area.”

According to Coudriet, “these are men who are fully committed, they want to be there.”

Mackethan said accountability to peers would ensure residents would not be disruptive.

“All residents have accountability for their actions and must meet certain standards of conduct. Their peers institute consequences for poor behavior, such as not keeping up with their chores or disrespectful actions,” Mckethan said.

Coudriet also addressed concerns that The Healing Place would essentially serve as an overflow facility for the New Hanover County Sheriff’ Office. While early discussions about The Healing Place did stem from concerns of jail overcrowding, Coudriet said the issue was that people were being jailed for substance use issues instead of treated.

“This is not simply about shrinking the jail population,” Coudriet said. “If there’s someone who needs to be in jail, our law enforcement and our justice system is fulling committed to making sure they go there… but if you’ve got someone who is in jail solely for abusing a substance, they shouldn’t be in jail, they should be getting treatment.”

Mckethan noted, “We do have an agreement with [New Hanover County] have 25 beds reserved as part of the jail diversion program with the following limitations: ‘without a violent charge, who are non-gang affiliated and who are not using methamphetamine.’”

Possible disruptions

Another concern raised by neighbors is the “trudge,” group walks that are part of The Healing Place’s program. Whitley said she feared the large groups would pass by the open hospice rooms and cause disruptions. Mckethan said the group walks would be supervised and that, in general, The Healing Place would have the same quiet atmosphere as the hospice it will neighbor.

“This is a key component of the evidence-based The Healing Place program that is vital to the program initiation and engagement strategy. The ‘trudges’ have a destination, they are not simply wanders around the neighborhood. They are going to AA meetings and other programmed activities. The ‘trudge’ is supervised by paid staff and peers who have achieved success in the program,” Mckethan said.

For Whitley, Trillium and the county’s faith in the commitment of future residents doesn’t ease security concerns. Whitley said LCFH has had to consider taking on additional security methods.

“We’ve priced it out, it will cost us around $1 million,” Whitley said.

Currently, that’s LCFH’s budget for providing services free of charge to families that can’t afford hospice.

“About ten percent of our services we provide for free, that’s our budget for doing that — so, I mean we’re looking at whether or not we could keep doing that,” Whitley said.

Community involvement and alternate sites

The planned location of The Healing Place, adjacent to several medical facilities. (Port City Daily photo / Google)
The planned location of The Healing Place, adjacent to several medical facilities. (Port City Daily photo / Google)

Several of the future neighbors, including LCFH, CLC, and Wilmington Health have objected to what they see as a lack of communication from the county.

Coudriet maintains that the process for creating The Healing Place – including picking a location – has been public since it began in 2016. He did acknowledge that the county did not reach out directly to local businesses until it held a public meeting in early December to address concerns that arisen.

Mckethan pointed out that “the existing zoning ordinances allows all components and services except for the residential piece,” although, for the future neighbors, it is the “residential piece” that is at the root of many of the objections.

There have been several attempts by those neighbors to find a different location.

Whitley said LCFH has offered the county $2.25 million – the market value of the planned location – to help facilitate an alternative. Chris Bunch, the chief financial officer at Wilmington Health, said the company had offered to work with the county to utilize two possible locations, one in Porters Neck and the other on 17th Street.

Coudriet said he was not familiar with LCFH’s offer, but that the county had considered multiple locations, including the unused $5.4 million property next to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention center owned by the county. That location, according to Mackethan, wasn’t viable because WAVE route 207, which goes past the property, doesn’t provide adequate service.

“WAVE Route 207 was not sufficient because its last bus on weekdays ends at 8 and it has even more limited availability on weekends.  That would make attendance at evening meetings impossible and would result in a lot of wasted time for participants traveling to meetings which are far more available in the City of Wilmington (note the “trudges” above).  The location also would have made employment opportunities virtually nonexistent without a great deal of travel, which would be counterproductive to the success of the participants and the program,” Mackethan said.

Bunch, who said Wilmington Health will be at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, said he hopes to continue conversations with the county about alternative locations.

Wilmington City Council meets Tuesday, Jan 8, at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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