unwanted neighbors

East Bronx Politicians Join Groundswell of Opposition to Drug Treatment Clinics

Councilmember Mark Gjonaj (D-The Bronx) attends a hearing at City Hall, Nov. 13, 2019.
Councilmember Mark Gjonaj (D-The Bronx) attends a hearing at City Hall, Nov. 13, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Bronx Councilmember Mark Gjonaj stood before hundreds gathered at a town hall meeting on a proposed drug treatment clinic in Allerton and told them what they wanted to hear: “The deal is dead.”

The Democrat was among the East Bronx elected officials united in opposing the outpatient center proposed by Carnegie Hill Institute — even as all said they’re still seeking solutions for an opioid epidemic that’s wracked the borough.

“The opposing to a clinic coming into this neighborhood is not because we don’t know there’s an epidemic, but it’s not the right place,” Gjnoaj said at the Nov. 7 meeting, adding: “This part of the Bronx is truly inundated with clinics.”

Operators of the Carnegie Hill Institute, which operates a well-reviewed treatment facility on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, near elite private schools, declined to comment.

Pelham-Throgs Neck, which includes Allerton, is among the areas of the city hardest hit by drug overdoses, with the tenth-highest fatality rate out of 42 city districts, according to the city Department of Health.

Gjonaj and other local officials say they know drug addiction is a problem — but have mobilized to derail multiple treatment clinic proposals in the past year, saying the facilities belong elsewhere.

‘You are Not Welcome’

At the town hall meeting, sponsored by Community Board 11, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx) and Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez (D-The Bronx) joined the chorus of opposition.

“I am fully in support of making sure that we are not allowing for these facilities to be near schools, to be near our homes, to be in our backyards,” video taken by an audience member shows Biaggi told the applauding crowd.

Councilmember Mark Gjonaj speaks with Bronx residents about a proposed drug treatment clinic on Williamsbridge Road
Councilmember Mark Gjonaj speaks with Bronx residents about a proposed drug treatment clinic on Williamsbridge Road Photo: @MarkGjonajNY/Facebook

Fernandez said of the clinic operator: “I will let them know too, right away: You are not welcome here to do this. We do not need it here.”

On Sept. 10, a Carnegie Hill representative presented plans to Community Board 11 for an outpatient program that would use medication, such as suboxone, to help patients curb their cravings for drugs.

Carnegie Hill had tried earlier this year to open a facility on East Tremont Avenue in Pelham Bay, only to retreat after the property’s owner refused to sell amid community opposition.

Among those protesting was Gjonaj — who, with Biaggi, also was a vocal foe of provider Miracle City’s proposal to open a clinic on Bruckner Boulevard nearby in Throgs Neck.

A Deadly Toll

East Bronx officials’ steadfast opposition to outpatient drug treatment centers clashes with their calls to fight an addiction crisis that kills more people in The Bronx than in any borough.

Last year, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported, 391 Bronx residents died of drug overdoses — accounting for 31% of all drug fatalities citywide. The Bronx is home to 17% of the city’s population.

In his 2018 inauguration speech, Gjonaj decried an “opioid crisis” and advocated for treatment and prevention programs. “We can no longer afford to be quiet in the face of this crisis,” he said. “It is an epidemic that is hitting all of us, regardless of your background, your education, your success in life.”

He’s since co-sponsored a pending bill that would require libraries to stock an overdose antidote, such as naloxone. Another bill, which would require similar products to be available in city parks, is being drafted, said Reginald Johnson, a Gjonaj spokesperson.

“He’s not opposed to the clinics,” Johnson told THE CITY, adding that “if he gets involved, it’s usually because there’s a concern.”

Biaggi, while running last year to unseat Sen. Jeff Klein, urged the creation of safe injection sites for opioid users. On Thursday — just as the CB11 town hall meeting got underway — a post went up on her Facebook page that included a photo of the senator and her staff displaying naloxone kits following a training session.

She also advertised she’ll be hosting a panel discussion at the City Island library: “Fighting the Opioid Crisis,” focusing on “potential community and legislative solutions.”

Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez (D-The Bronx)
Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez (D-The Bronx) Photo: Bronx Borough President’s Office/Flickr

Fernandez issued a statement in January promoting a new state law requiring drug manufacturers to sponsor take-back programs for unused prescription drugs, including opioids: “We must continue to do everything we can to prevent addiction, increase access to treatment and ensure those suffering are not forgotten or ignored.”

A flyer from the “District 11 Coalition” posted in local business windows advertising last Thursday’s town hall urged constituents to vote Gjonaj and Fernandez out of office if the clinic moved in. It concluded: “We are watching and we vote.”

Schools Nearby

In pressing for Carnegie Hill to back off its plans, local officials expressed concern about the Bronx opioid crisis — along with reasons why Williamsbridge Road and yet another possible site on Esplanade Avenue should not be part of the solution.

“The issue with 2500 Williamsbridge Road is that the proposed location is just a few feet away from one of the biggest schools in my district,” said Fernandez in a statement, referring to P.S. 89. “The safety of our students is a very real concern.”

Also in the vicinity are two Catholic schools, Christopher Columbus High School and a playground, opponents note.

Fernandez added that the opioid epidemic was “definitely a problem” that “needs to be addressed.”

Two major medical centers in the area, Jacobi Hospital and Montefiore, run state-certified outpatient treatment centers, according to state records procured by the Greater Harlem Coalition, which is fighting a proposed Mt. Sinai facility in Upper Manhattan.

Montefiore’s outpatient opioid treatment program, nearly two miles away, can handle nearly 1,000 patients. The Bronx Addiction Treatment Center, in Morris Park, is an inpatient facility with room for up to 38 patients.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx and Westchester)
State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx and Westchester) Photo: Bronx Borough President’s Office/Flickr

“This is a difficult issue in our district,” Biaggi, who also represents part of Westchester County, said in a statement to THE CITY. “There is no question that the opioid epidemic is raging across The Bronx and that our suffering neighbors need the resources and support to heal. At the same time, there is large community opposition to establishing additional drug treatment centers due to safety concerns regarding the proximity to children.”

Existing treatment centers in the Community Board 11 area have her support, Biaggi added.

“It is my hope that together we will be able to build creative solutions that can support Bronxites suffering from opioid addiction that are effective and welcomed by the community,” she said.

Some in the Pelham-Throgs Neck area agreed, saying they’re sympathetic to the needs of those with drug use issues but are concerned about the placement of treatment centers.

“I don’t think it would have an effect on me, I would have more customers for sure,” said Joseph Beqiri, owner of Prego’s Pizza, facing what would have been a clinic Williamsbridge Road. “But across the street from a school?”

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