In July, neighbors in Lower Moyamensing in South Philly came together to protest a suboxone clinic that had opened on the quiet corner of 12th and Fitzgerald streets. As we reported last week, Licenses & Inspections and the district councilman, Mark Squilla were called in, and the landlord and the clinic operator got the message that the location wasn't a good fit. By the end of the month, they moved out of the neighborhood.
That's one side of the story.
Dr. Clarence Verdell tells the other side: He says his office was surrounded by 15 or so men who would loiter threateningly every day for a week, until civil affairs police started showing up. He says that rumors were intentionally spread that he was running a methadone clinic, rather than a suboxone clinic. He says he was threatened with violence. He says protesters insinuated to him that they had organized-crime connections, and that he was warned through city and neighborhood sources of threats to bomb or burn down his clinic. And he says the problem wasn't so much what he was doing inside his practice as the color of his skin.
"They essentially had a private medical office under siege," he says. "We were pressured out. Our lives were threatened. People were getting violent. … They had serious issues with a black doctor in their community."
Verdell says many in the neighborhood supported what he was doing, and understood that there was a need for it. But he says a vocal group of critics prevailed, and, "in my opinion, the councilman got suckered into something ugly and so did L&I."
L&I became involved because Verdell did not initially have the proper use permit for the site. After L&I came out, he eventually obtained the use permit, but was cited for building an interior wall without a permit. That violation remains open, though Verdell may have been able to resolve it. Instead, he packed up and moved to Frankford, a neighborhood that already has a number of addiction-recovery houses and related services. Verdell says he's considering legal action against the city, though he isn't sure yet about the details.
L&I has been caught in the middle of wrangling over another clinic, The Healing Way, proposed for Frankford Avenue and Decatur Street in Holmesburg. Neighbors and politicians have been trying to block that clinic, a methadone dispensary, from opening for the past year. After L&I issued the permit there, the Zoning Board overturned it, but that decision was reversed by the Court of Common Pleas. In Verdell's case, as at the Healing Way, current zoning laws allow the clinics to operate by right in appropriately zoned locations. That's something Squilla is looking into changing, he says.
Squilla previously told City Paper that he received 20 or 30 phone calls the day Verdell's office opened, from neighbors who were concerned about the presence of an armed guard at the site. A neighbor who spoke with CP said he was just uncomfortable having a suboxone clinic on a residential block near several schools. "Cars were double parked, lots of people were coming in and out, and I believe some of the gentlemen and women that were going there, they were a little unsavory."
But, Squilla agrees that the clinic, called Solutions in Recovery, had a right to operate there once it got its permitting issues straightened out. He says that the fact that Verdell moved was a reflection on the closeness of the neighbors: "If the community gets up in arms and tries to protect itself it gets more attention. If that community wasn't so close-knit and people didn't complain to 311, to my office, no one would have known about it. But they were able to get a lot of attention from us and from the police and we were able to look into this matter."
The thing is, says Verdell, there's a real need for treatment all over the city — not just in areas like Frankford. But in South Philly, "People were … saying the place looked like Camden, and refusing to accept the fact that the people we were treating were their own sons and daughters."
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