At night, you can stroll several times along the 1700 block of Willard Street NW and never notice anything out of the ordinary. Gradually, on the fourth or fifth trip, your eyes will be drawn -- as mine were -- to a brick apartment building where the lights always burn until midnight and then blink off. A sign at the entrance says, "Meeting Unmet Needs."
Disturbances? You'll find the loudest on the porches and sidewalks of adjacent homes. Loitering? You'll only find it outside the liquor and grocery stores and in front of the check-cashing businesses on U Street, Florida Avenue and 18th Street. Appearances? Some of the buildings within a radius of a few blocks are in horrible shape. The Willard Street building isn't one of them. Serious crime? None that can be attributed to the apartment house on Willard.
I know. I live less than a block away from the building. In 15 years, the building's owner has never received a serious complaint about his tenants, nor had one of his own. Unfortunately, the lease has expired. Would you believe that such tenants would have a difficult time in finding another place to live?
The inconspicuous building on Willard Street is a drug rehabilitation facility called RAP Inc. It's one of the area's best. It has quietly received more than 1,000 of the city's addicts. About 800, by all accounts, have never returned to drugs. Now, having served the city's needs for 17 years, RAP cannot find a building of its own or a neighborhood that is willing to harbor it. That is part of the peculiar hypocrisy and unsubstantiated hysteria over drug rehabilitation facilities in this city.
Everyone knows that drug use is widespread. Heroin, PCP and cocaine are so prevalent that there is always a waiting list for treatment programs. Some addicts are most dangerous when they are seeking funds to feed their habit. Others are most dangerous when they are using the drug. When are they the least dangerous? When they have summoned the nerve to seek treatment, while they are in treatment, and immediately after. Yet some would allow the dissolution of a successful program such as RAP's simply because no one wants it in the neighborhood.
"RAP has been providing a service for members of the community. Some of those people who need their services are our own neighbors," said Kwasi Holman, director of the city's Office on Business and Economic Development. Holman said that $100,000 in city funds will be given to RAP for renovations -- once it finds a building. Several sites were considered, but the organization encountered strong opposition at each. Most recently, RAP applied to occupy the old Bowen YMCA building, but was turned down.
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Sr. (Ward 5) sees it differently. RAP will go before the city's Board of Zoning Adjustments this month, hoping to use a building on Fourth Street NE. That's Thomas' ward, and he is anxious to welcome RAP. He said his police district has the second-highest number of drug-related arrests in the city. In the past year, 228 arrests involved children in the fifth through the ninth grades. Eighty-eight youngsters were arrested in one major drug sales area alone, on Montana Avenue.
"RAP will help us," Thomas says. "I'm wholeheartedly behind them."
The day at RAP begins at 5 a.m., and no one is allowed to stop working until midnight. There are cleaning details, grocery shopping assignments, individual and group therapy and rap sessions that allow the patients to let off steam. The average stay in the program is 18 months. It has a waiting list of 100 people; the number has been as high as 400.
But potential neighbors always fear the worst. They conjure up images of strangers luring children with drugs. They imagine violent incidents involving crazed addicts. They think that the same patients will break into their homes, or they expect to hear loud disturbances that continue throughout the night. Unfortunately, the best way to dismiss those fears involves a method that many will never experience: living near a drug treatment site and quietly realizing that there is nothing more to fear than the usual number of urban thieves and thugs who are abroad at night.
RAP, by the way, does not allow its tenants to go out alone at night. The neighborhood is just too dangerous.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.