In a city where one in nine residents struggles with a substance abuse problem, a cornerstone of the government's response has been an isolated Detoxification Center in Southeast where the roof leaked, the furniture was old or broken and diversions such as television were nonexistent.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) made his first visit to the city's only residential detox facility in April with colleague Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and left appalled by the conditions. The sheets and pillows, he recalled, "looked like Civil War rations" -- old and torn -- and were in grossly inadequate supply.
But nearly five months later, the squat red-brick building on the grounds of Reservation 13, the former D.C. General Hospital site at Massachusetts Avenue and 19th Street, is starting to look better. Its roof was just repaired and ceiling tiles replaced. Fresh coats of paint brighten hallways and rooms. The improvements, paid for with $250,000 in existing city funds, have been pushed by the D.C. Council health committee, chaired by Catania, and by the city's top health official, who talks of making the program there a model that others might emulate.
"It is one of those core functions of public health," health department Director Gregg A. Pane said.
The center's neglect and deterioration occurred despite widespread acknowledgement of the District's huge population of 60,000 drug and alcohol addicts, a number that works out to a rate nearly double the national average. "Recent data make it clear that the city's substance abuse problem as a whole is far more extensive than previously recognized," a city report stated in 2003.
Catania said the council and the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) share culpability, noting that the city's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration budget has shrunk by more than $2 million, to $34.3 million, since fiscal 2003. Like Pane, he said he sees the detox program as "the home plate" of recovery: "You have to go there to start the process."
When he toured in April, Catania found a quarter of the center's 80 beds out of commission because of holes in the ceiling from water damage. Toilets weren't working properly.
"It was like a Turkish prison," center director Charles Hall said during another tour last week.
The ongoing renovations are converting a dingy, empty room into a lounge space that donations will supply with a new color television and cable service. An equally empty courtyard -- adorned with nothing but grass -- will be furnished with patio chairs and tables in time for cooler fall weather. Discussions are underway for the city's fine arts commission to lend paintings and other works for the walls and corridors.
Crack cocaine and heroin are the two substances the center confronts most frequently among the men and women who pass through its doors, usually for two-week stays. Most patients are in their thirties and forties, though one current patient qualifies as a senior citizen.
Given the magnitude of the District's problem, Hall estimated that the city could use several hundred detox beds. For now, he said, he'll settle for making conditions for these beds the best they can be.
That encompasses program improvements, too, including the first Spanish-speaking counselor and full-time mental health counselor in several years. Two local construction companies have been approached about starting a job-training program for patients.
Next month, the detox center will receive even more attention. Catania plans to bring the council health committee to the center's dining room to hold a hearing about the state of the District's substance abuse treatment.That session will be broadcast on the city's cable channel on a date to be announced.
In the shadow of the refurbished RFK Stadium, the council member expects to make a point.
"If we could put a fraction of the resources here that we've put into a convention center and baseball stadium . . . to help people reclaim their lives," he said, "it would be the best public investment."