A Community Medical Services treatment center in West Allis, Wisconsin. Milwaukee's zoning board has approved a new CMS facility to be opened on Capitol Drive in Milwaukee. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)
A medication-assisted treatment center for people struggling with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) has gotten the green light to open a new facility on Milwaukee’s North Side. After a contested hearing held by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals Thursday night the clinic, Community Medical Services (CMS), received approval to operate for five years in a northwest pocket of the city.
For the clinic’s staff and supporters, it was a victory several years in the making. Although CMS clinics have operated in Milwaukee County since 2019, until now, they’d been unable to open in the city. From the North Side to the South Side, the clinic was greeted with stiff opposition from concerned neighbors.
John Koch, community engagement director at CMS, recalled efforts to open a facility in 2018, three blocks from the now-approved site at 7600 W. Capitol Drive. Forced to look elsewhere after local opposition, CMS was able to open a clinic in the city of West Allis.
Since then, local firefighters report that West Allis has seen a 21% decline in non-fatal overdoses. The same period of time saw non-fatal overdoses rise by 58% overall in Milwaukee County. CMS also received letters of support from the city of Greenfield’s fire and health departments, the South Milwaukee Police Department, UMOS, and the Inner Beauty Society, a nonprofit that works with women victimized by human trafficking.
In Milwaukee, treatment services are lagging far behind the needs of the estimated 20,000 people using opioids across the county. Koch told the zoning board Thursday night that Milwaukee saw 41 non-fatal overdoses over Memorial Day weekend. Several other people who overdosed however, did not survive. According to a county dashboard, there have been 609 overdose deaths so far this year, while more than 5,500 residents have experienced non-fatal overdoses. The deaths annually outpace those caused by homicide, suicide, and motor vehicle accidents.
But while many who opposed CMS recognize a problem with drug use, they simply don’t want a treatment center near their neighborhoods. Many of those complaints arose during a community meeting on May 24 near the proposed clinic location. Residents expressed concern that the clinic would attract people struggling with drug addiction to the area, or that an increase in discarded needles would become a problem. Others had ideological differences with medication-assisted treatment, saying it’s trading one drug for another and advocating faith-based approaches and willpower. Others spoke in support of the clinic. Some who were at the May 24 meeting returned for the zoning hearing.
Also in the crowd Thursday night were representatives from the Vin Baker Recovery Center. Baker is an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and has been open about his struggles with addiction and recovery. Baker’s treatment center, which is scheduled to open in July, would operate just a couple miles from the planned CMS site.
Participating virtually rather than in person at the zoning meeting, Baker sounded unperturbed by CMS’s plans. “It’s my hope that Vin Baker Recovery Center wins, and if CMS wins, and Vin Baker Recovery wins, that means the city of Milwaukee wins, and addiction begins to lose one day at a time,” he said.
Corporate representatives and a real estate attorney from the Vin Baker center spoke against CMS, however, saying it would disrupt their business and a $3 million investment made in the center. Vin Baker center representatives also spoke at the May 24 meeting, saying they didn’t want another treatment facility within three miles of their own.
Ald. Lamont Westmoreland, whose district includes the CMS site, also spoke at the zoning meeting against the facility. Westmoreland referred to city planning documents for the area that say social service-related businesses should be discouraged from locating in the area. A CMS representative later countered that it is a medical facility, not a social service facility.
Westmoreland added that where the CMS clinic will open has few overdoses compared to other parts of the city. “I support treatment facilities, just not this particular location,” he said.
A local resident who phoned in called treatment centers “predatory” and singled out CMS. Maurice Goodwin, who lives in the neighborhood near the clinic site and attended both meetings, said he didn’t want to raise his three young boys around a neighborhood with treatment centers.
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After the zoning board approved the clinic, Goodwin said he felt local residents didn’t pay close enough attention to the proposal, that CMS doesn’t understand the community because it is from out of state, and that other in-need populations are not being served. “I have two sons with autism,” Goodwin told Wisconsin Examiner, “so they want to say that drug use is a mental health thing. Okay that’s fine. So you mean to tell me that the mental health of adults is more of a priority than the mental health of our children, who know nothing about drugs? Who are just trying to live a happy life?”
Several people who spoke in favor of CMS are from Milwaukee, including clinic staff. “We’re excited to finally have a clinic on the North Side of Milwaukee,” Amanda DeLeon, community impact manager at CMS, told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s been something we’ve been fighting for five years. We’ve embedded ourselves in the community, and that showed up today. Our community showed up for us.”
Milwaukee Fire Department Chief Aaron Lipski was among the supporters. “This is astounding to me,” said Lipski after hearing some of the clinic opponents speak Thursday evening. “This is backwards to the reality that we’re facing right now.”
Lipski also rejected claims that CMS would threaten or disrupt the business at the Vin Baker Recovery Center.
Koch told Wisconsin Examiner that arguments suggesting CMS was a competitive threat were a first for him. “Never ever have I seen that from any company in our industry,” he said. “That is greed, we are not about that. We will drive people to Vin Baker facility if that’s the best treatment for them.”
CMS is not driven by profits, Koch said. “We’re about helping people. That’s what comes first. You help people, and everything else works out.”
Koch has been in recovery for a decade and lost friends to fatal overdoses along the way. He told Wisconsin Examiner that he had to go to five treatment programs before finding one that worked for his needs.
After the clinic was finally approved Thursday night, he fought back tears. “I feel happy, man,” he said. “I’ve lost so many people to addiction. I just hope that this program gets to save lives and, you know, give people a chance like I got.”
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