BALTIMORE — Work began Friday to convert an old hospital building in West Baltimore into a facility that will provide a place for people using drugs or alcohol to sober up and perhaps get a jump-start on their way to treatment.
The crisis stabilization center will be the first of its kind in the city and one of only a few nationally. It aims to divert some of the 16,000 people who go to hospital emergency rooms in Baltimore every year because of drugs and alcohol even when they do not need acute medical care.
In the works for several years, officials say the center will open in about a year and potentially help stem skyrocketing overdose deaths from the opioid epidemic.
“You see people standing on the corners and standing in the streets and wonder where they go and what we can do with them,” Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said during Friday’s groundbreaking event. “We need to get these people back on their feet.”
The center was spearheaded by the Baltimore Health Department and Behavioral Health System Baltimore, the nonprofit that oversees mental-health and substance-use treatment in the city. Up to 35 people at a time could be brought by ambulance or referred from other hospitals to the center, located in the former Hebrew Orphan Asylum on Rayner Avenue in Greater Rosemont.
The center will use the building’s first floor, with remaining space leased to other community health-care providers. Neighborhood leaders expressed interest in a dental office, urgent care center and other primary health-care services.
The city signed a 15-year lease on the historic orphanage in 2017 but did not have the funds to run the center or renovate the building, which has been empty since 1989. Last year, Baltimore City Health Department and Behavioral Health System Baltimore secured $3.6 million in capital funds in the state budget to build the center. Maryland’s Department of Health gave $2.6 million for operating expenses.
The $17 million renovation is being undertaken by the nonprofit Coppin Heights Community Development and the real estate company Cross Street Partners.
The stabilization center will return the castle-like building to a health-care use. Constructed in 1876, it was used as an orphanage for Jewish children and later became part of West Baltimore General Hospital, before becoming the Lutheran Hospital of Maryland, according to Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit focused on historic preservation and revitalization.
The city has been operating a pilot program at Tuerk House, an adjacent substance-use disorder treatment facility, which officials say has proved the need and the concept. The pilot center has served 343 people, with 391 visits, and has sent 62 percent of them on to treatment. After 30 days, about 40 percent remained in that treatment, officials said.
The stabilization center is modeled after a similar one in San Francisco, which community members visited a few years ago before offering their support for the operation.
Baltimore, along with much of the rest of the nation, has been in the grips of an opioid epidemic, which has led to record overdose deaths.
There were 1,848 intoxication-related deaths statewide in the first nine months of 2018, the latest state data available. More than a third were in Baltimore City, and most were linked to opioids including heroin and the more powerful fentanyl that is often mixed in.
City officials have looked for ways to steer more people to treatment and supportive services that they believe make the treatment more effective, such as peer counseling, stable housing and mental-health services. The center aims to link people to those resources that are not directly provided, in addition to a “warm handoff” to treatment, which means establishing the connection and even providing transportation.
“The stabilization center provides an alternative to costly hospital services by effectively diverting people to care in the community,” said Crista M. Taylor, Behavioral Health System Baltimore president and chief executive.
“This innovative approach promotes recovery and resiliency, by linking people with substance-use disorders to treatment and support services that will help them in their recovery.”