North Philly was promised an addiction crisis center — but never got it

The Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services has been silent about it for months.

Kensington Opioid Sydney_Schaefer2
Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

It’s been six months since the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services announced it would build* a brand new emergency facility in North Philadelphia to help people with substance use disorder become stabilized and access treatment.

The center, which would provide 24-hour walk-in services for drug users in crisis, still isn’t open, and DBHIDS is avoiding questions.

*Updated Nov. 8, 2017 While the agency did not announce plans to build a new facility, it did state a new facility was in the works. DBHIDS has expanded its addiction services at Episcopal Hospital, but has not opened a new facility, nor does it have concrete plans to do so. There are still five crisis response centers in the city, and still just two in North Philadelphia.

The facility, which would have been the third in the entire North Philadelphia region, was supposed to open over the summer. Out of nearly 700 overdose deaths in the city in 2015 — the most recent year for which geographic data has been made available — 206 people died in the River Wards, Lower North, North and Upper North Philadelphia neighborhoods.

“In that area, that is one of the poorer parts of Philadelphia,” said Henry Kranzler, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction. “It’s under-resourced on a number of levels, including adequate treatment facilities for addiction.”

Calls and emails unreturned

In North Philadelphia, DBHIDS operates one crisis response center and one behavioral assessment center at Temple University Episcopal Hospital at Front and Lehigh, and another behavioral assessment center at Kensington Hospital at Front and Diamond. Behavioral assessment centers serve as points of entry for people with addiction to access different types of treatment, including inpatient and medication assisted treatment. A crisis response center is open 24/7 to treat emergency behavioral health crises.

DBHIDS used to operate an additional behavioral assessment center in the Girard Medical Center complex at Eighth and Girard, but it closed in the fall of 2016. That left two behavioral assessment centers remaining in North Philadelphia.

Since the announcement in May, DBHIDS has been silent about the new walk-in center. Billy Penn reached out to the department for more than a month requesting information about the facility — about 15 times from three different phone numbers and six times via email.

In early October, Billy Penn asked DBHIDS Director of Communication Monica Lewis-Wilborn about the status of the new facility, and she responded, “What facility?” Since then, the department has declined to comment.

‘Bursting at the seams’

A new center in the North Philadelphia region would alleviate some of the pressure on the city’s already overcrowded and under-resourced facilities.

“Right now, the system is bursting at the seams,” Kranzler said. “The treatment system is being overstretched. It never has been quite adequate.”

Harry Zelnick, who has been in recovery from substance use disorder for three years, runs weekly Alcoholics’ Anonymous meetings at Girard Medical Center. When people with addiction ask Zelnick for advice about getting into treatment, he recommends they visit a psych ward and claim they’re suicidal, even if they’re not.

The alternative — accessing treatment from a DBHIDS facility — often takes too long.

“All the people who get in there, they have to beg,” Zelnick said. “They literally have to beg to get in there.”

Zelnick detoxed from opioids a few times, one of which was at the now-closed behavioral assessment center at Girard Medical Center. Detoxing in a public facility is “more comfortable” than detoxing on your own, Zelnick said.

“It’s really brutal,” Zelnick said. “You can have seizures and die from detox. It’s important to have medical detox.”

Though no one form of detox is perfect for everyone, detoxing at a medical facility has its benefits. Kranzler said with proper care, it’s easier for patients to access medication-assisted treatments like methadone and buprenorphine, which can help sustain sobriety. DBHIDS centers can also refer patients to the next steps in the treatment process.

“Being in a facility with other people who are going through a similar situation as well, not crash-landing just 100 percent, cold-turkey, you’re able to come off opiates with treatment,” Zelnick said.

‘More addicts are going to die’

What will happen if the city doesn’t open a third facility in North Philadelphia?

“More addicts are going to die,” Zelnick said. “More addicts are going to commit crimes. People need to understand that when people are in the heavy grips of an addiction, they lose morality. They become people who are capable of doing really horrible things.”

“I know these people,” he added. “They’re not bad people. They’re sick people, and they need help.”

In 2016, 907 people died from drug overdoses in Philadelphia. City officials are predicting a 30-percent increase in overdose deaths for 2017.

“It’s a woefully undertreated illness,” Kranzler added. “If cancer were this under-treated, people would be up in arms.”

“Right now,” Zelnick said, “it’s sort of just trying to stick our finger in a dam that’s overflowing.”