A small poster that’s been circulating through Northeast Philadelphia since early July portrays hands preparing heroin with a spoon and flame, and reads, “Stop the methadone clinic.” It’s plastered to doors and windows of several businesses along Frankford Avenue in Holmesburg. It, and others like it—like the one showing a woman and her daughter entering a drug treatment clinic—are in response to a methadone treatment facility that’s planned to open on Frankford’s 7900 block.
Such posters are just a small part of the mounting opposition to the clinic, which would be Northeast Philly’s third and one of 15 citywide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. A potential fourth has been planned for the area, as well. The number of patients seeking methadone treatment in Philadelphia is undisclosed, though the office of state Rep. Kevin Boyle, whose district covers part of Philly, puts estimates at 500 to 750 patients per day—many of whom, at the beginning of treatment, can show up daily or twice a day.
Critics of the treatment facilities say that methadone—a narcotic treatment used for coming off an opiate addiction—is “just another high” for heroin addicts.
“I’m not sure where I think is the right place to use methadone,” says state Sen. Mike Stack—whose 5th District includes the SOAR methadone treatment and rehabilitation center—at a public meeting held at Lincoln High School last month. “I know one thing, it’s not here. It’s not anywhere around here … I want people who have drug issues to be able to recover, but waiting in lines in nice neighborhoods like this, that’s not the right use of methadone.”
According to a 2004 Government Accountability Office report, some clinics have been linked to problem drug areas across the country, though many treatment facilities are often placed in problem drug areas because that’s where the problem is. Many who are strongly opposed to the clinics use this line of thinking to fuel their argument. When asked by an anonymous audience member at the Lincoln High meeting if Healing Way, the proposed medical facility on Frankford Avenue, would still be opposed by the community and politicians even if it were run correctly, Boyle responded, “100 percent.”
The audience, already angry about the rhetoric being thrown their way, ate that up. A young woman in the audience told her friend she intended to pelt methadone patients with eggs if and when they arrived for treatment. A middle-aged father repeatedly screamed during lulls that “Section Eight housing” was to blame for the potential of a methadone clinic in his neighborhood. Another man threatened violence against Healing Way’s owners. A young girl in the back of the auditorium began crying soon after hearing “drug addicts” would be “riding the bus with our children.”
The reality is most people don’t want a methadone clinic in their backyard. But despite residents’ cries, methadone patients, obviously, have differing views.
Colette Kolbmann, for example, was shocked to see her photograph, and that of her daughter, being used on one of the posters to incense locals for the Lincoln High School rally. The 26-year-old lifelong Northeast Philly resident is probably the last person you’d want to use as an example of methadone’s faults, since she credits the narcotic with saving her life.
“There’s this stigma with methadone that people don’t understand,” she says. “If you’re a diabetic and you need your medication every day, you’re going to take it every day … an addiction is a disease and methadone is a treatment for that disease. If you don’t get high and you stay on methadone you can eventually get off and live a healthy life.”
A Morrell Park native, Kolbmann says she started drinking at 11, smoking pot at 12 and doing heroin at 15. “Not because I wanted to be a junkie. I just knew I was doing what everybody else was doing,” she says.
She eventually gave up her daughter to her parents and lived on the streets. She says the drug took the lives of more than a dozen of her friends, many of whom were too embarrassed to go to a clinic. “They didn’t want to ask for help,” she says, “and they knew how people look down on those who use methadone, so instead they shot heroin and took [Oxycontin] in secret.”
Since 2006, Kolbmann has attended several methadone clinics in the city, and understands why the local reaction is what it is. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “the clinic down at Eighth and Girard, the one at Parkside, the Kensington clinic—if you go down there, it’s a zoo because it’s not run right.”
“There are an embarrassing number of people who abuse methadone,” says Aaron Torres, Kolbmann’s husband, who’s still receiving treatment for heroin addiction. “But that’s because they’re getting it at the clinics in Kensington, South Philly, at Ninth and Market … If you walk out of that place you’re going to have 10 people walk up to you and try to sell you drugs.”
As is, many of the city’s successful clinics, like Northeast Treatment and SOAR, are in Northeast Philly. But unlike the proposed clinic on Frankford Avenue, they’re mostly removed from commercial and residential districts. These clinics often have long waiting lists because of their success rates and many who need treatment are forced to head into areas where abuse of clinics is easier and more rampant.
“The location Healing Way is looking to move into, it’s just an awful location,” says Boyle. “It’s not a responsible place to put it. There’s a day care center, a dance studio, a church, and I just completely reject the insinuation that all of the Delaware Valley’s heroin addicts are in Northeast Philadelphia … It just seems as though there was a decision to put methadone treatment facilities in Northeast Philadelphia.”
The owners of Healing Way, Alan Yanovsky and Eric Janovsky, did not respond for comment. No one has been able to talk to the pair—who also own a cash-for-gold venture on Sansom Street—about Healing Way yet, though a zoning hearing is taking place on Aug. 31, which they will be required to attend.
Boyle says they “refuse to work with the local community or elected officials. So how are they going to be responsible to the neighborhood if they don’t want to work with the neighborhood?”