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Promises are cheap; just ask Midtown

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002


Attention drug addicts in St. Petersburg seeking treatment:

Go stick up your neighborhood convenience store. Make sure you're high when you do it. Then throw yourself on the mercy of the judge in drug court.

It makes no sense, but this is the only way into the Family and Substance Abuse Center in Midtown. You have to break the law and be sentenced to treatment.

This is not at all what Midtown wanted.

After the street violence of 1996, people in the neighborhood declared themselves tired of being falsely labeled as criminals, tired of having their entire neighborhood unfairly tagged as a haven for dope pushers.

They asked for a drug rehabilitation center in their community so that people who wanted to quit their habits could simply walk in off the street and get help.

There wasn't any place like this in St. Petersburg. You had to go to Operation PAR at the other end of the county, and it was too far away for junkies in the city without cars and without hope.

The idea was practical, simple. How hard could it be -- especially when the idea had backers like Mayor Rick Baker and Goliath Davis, then St. Petersburg's police chief?

How hard could it be?

Impossibly so.

Since the very day the center on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S opened in August 2001, not a single cent has been available for long-term treatment of addicts who don't come through the courts.

What money there might have been for addicts seeking treatment on their own would have come from the state Department of Children and Families, but Pinellas County's allotment, $5-million, had already been divvied up by other agencies that treat addicts.

As long as there's no extra money -- money that would have to come through the Legislature -- there'll be no money for voluntary treatment of addicts at the center in Midtown, says Shaunna Donovan, a DCF spokeswoman.

The only people who get into the center are male inmates, about 75 at any one time. There is no room for women. The men's treatment is paid for by the Department of Corrections.

The men live on the grounds for several months. They are in constant therapy with other addicts.

This is the sort of care middle-class people with jobs and medical insurance can get. But in neighborhoods where unemployment is high and jobs pay barely better than minimum wage, the very idea of this treatment is a fairy tale. This difference only feeds into notions of racial disparities. Whites with money can get treatment. Blacks can't.

This is not idle social theory. People in Midtown are confronted with the effects of this lack of care every day. The Rev. Gustav Victor, the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an organization of Midtown clergy, says that without fail, he is approached every day by somebody seeking help with drug problems for a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a friend. There's nothing he can do.

The man who raised much of the money to get the treatment center started, Watson Haynes II, told me that in the next couple of months, he'll be asking the Department of Children and Families for the money again. He pointed out that getting even the Corrections funds required meeting with Gov. Jeb Bush and convincing him of the need. This time may be no different.

Haynes made no prediction about whether he thinks he'll succeed.

A year and a half has gone by. More than a drug program is at stake.

The question is whether Midtown will be betrayed, whether a promise made to its people will be kept, or broken.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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