NEW BRITAIN – New Britain business owners and local health care professionals say they are not overly concerned about the impact of having mental health and methodone facilities within walking distance of the city center.
In fact, these same professionals said that mental health and substance abuse services are now needed more than ever.
The Hardware City is home to the Root Center for Advanced Recovery, formally known as The Hartford Dispensary, which is a network of clinics in Connecticut that provides treatment to patients who suffer from opioid disorders. Community Mental Health Affiliates (CMHA) is a mental health clinic that has been in the city for more than 40 years. Its headquarters were relocated to 233 Main St. in December.
Dr. Leonard Lev, medical director of the Root Center for Advanced Recovery, said the numbers of people who are becoming opioid-depended are striking.
“In this state we have lost just last year 1,100 patients to drug overdose, primarily fentanyl,” Lev said.
One thousand – one hundred deaths amount to almost three people a day who die from an overdose, he added.
“That happens not just in New Britain,” Lev said. “That happens in every corner of the state.”
The Root Center for Advanced Recovery New Britain Clinic is located at 70 Whiting St. According to Lev, that clinic serves from 600 patients to 700 patients a day.
“The patients in the New Britain Clinic are primarily from New Britain,” Lev said. “There are some patients, maybe 40 to 50 patients, who drive from the Middletown area.”
The Root Center for Advanced Recovery has two clinics in Hartford and 1,000 patients are served on a daily basis between the two clinics.
The center also has a clinic in Bristol that serves about 400 patients a day and one in Torrington also serving about 400 individuals on a daily basis.
“Not surprisingly but I have to tell you that in New Britain that’s where we see the actual number of patients in the clinic growing faster than in any other location we have,” Lev said.
While there are a lot of New Britain opioid users compared to the other clinics, Lev said, the opioid issue is a state wide epidemic.
“I don’t think you can name a community now in Connecticut which does not have a high prevalence of opioid addiction,” Lev said.
CMHA provides integrated and behavioral health services. It has 2,200 active clients that receive outpatient services at 233 Main St. Eighty percent of those 2,200 patients, deal or have dealt with substance use, abuse or dependency problems.
According to Grace Cavallo, CMHA program officer, most individuals who go into the organization with substance abuse disorders start in intensive programs that are four to five days a week.
“But they are also getting involved in vocational services, housing, case management, so it’s kind of wrapping the person around to help fight an epidemic from a variety of different reasons,” Cavallo said. “It’s one thing to try to get clean and it’s another thing to try to get clean when you don’t have a place to live or you don’t have food to eat or you don’t have a job. Bringing those services we are able to provide multiple services to help the individual reach their recovery.”
Before CMHA moved downtown, some questioned if businesses were going to stop coming into the city and others thought the clinic would bring a bigger community of homeless to hang out at Central Park, located across from the clinic.
“As much as this kinds of folks cross our doors and come in for our care, they are not leaving our offices and then hanging out at Central Square to have a drug party or to be breaking into a local business to get money or drugs or contribute to the crime rates,” Victor Incerti, CMHA Chief Program Officer, said.
In addition, Incerti said CMHA has proven to be a good neighbor that provides help to those in need. Incerti said CMHA clients and employees contribute to the local economy by buying lunch at the surrounding restaurants and shopping at the nearby stores.
“Because we provide this kind of behavioral health service and are looking to help people, it doesn’t draw or attract criminals, thieves, thugs, crazy people,” Incerti said. “It attracts their sons and daughters, their husbands and wives, their other family members. They are here already. That they come to this location should not serve as deter for anyone to consider opening up a business here because they utilize those businesses and services. Our clients have to grocery shop, have to shop for clothing, have to get other types of care so they are part of the fabric of the local community already.”
Mayor Erin Stewart said she’s glad CMHA is around to help those who are in need.
“As a former board member, I take great pride in knowing that CMHA is helping those who are in need,” Stewart said. “It is disingenuous to assume that all of their clients are homeless or addicts. Other agencies right here in New Britain - even right here at City Hall - offer mental health services. CMHA has had a strong presence in our city for over four decades providing vital and life-changing services to individuals from all across central Connecticut. The addition of more than 100 new employees has also provided a significant boost our local economy.”
Alderman Daniel Salerno said addressing mental health issues is important, adding that there are too many mental health stereotypes.
“I think there are perceptions that are wrong about CMHA,” Salerno said.
He said people just go to CMHA to receive services and there are all sorts of people who go there for care.
Employees are infusing the economic development of the city because they are eating at local restaurants and shopping at the local stores, he added.
“We have not noticed any negative impact, so hopefully they are doing the right thing,” Maria Bernacki, owner of Sir Speedy, said.
On the other hand, Jason Chen, manager at Cheng’s Kitchen Chinese Restaurant, said he has noticed more people hanging out at Central Park, causing a “bad impact more than a positive one,” he said.
“Them adding that building there doesn’t really help much,” Steve Ayala, owner of The Hive, said. “I’d rather have that be an apartment building so that we could build a better community downtown. Somebody working at CMHA cannot afford lunch every day at restaurants down there. They are going to be packing lunch. I mean, yeah we might get them once a week for restaurants, once or twice a week. It’s a big building in downtown. We could use the tax money to build better things for the city. We don’t need that type of clientele downtown. We need a community of people that live down there, shoppers, workers and people that are using the Fastrak.”
According to city officials, crime and drug related statistics in downtown do not prove that CMHA has been impacting the area.
“We do not have any data that indicates crime has increased or decreased due to CMHA moving to their Main Street location,” Christopher Chute, chief of police at the New Britain Police Department, said.
As part of its services, the organization has a homeless outreach team that goes out to the community including Central Park to help connect homeless clients to services, Cavallo said.
LaResse Harvey, a New Britain resident and social worker, said outreach is what the addicted and homeless community needs more of.
Harvey said it is “nice” to have CMHA right in downtown but the city and mental health clinics need to offer more services right where the people in need are.
“Why not just create some chess boards out there, give them something positive to do?” Harvey said.
She also said the outreach should include conversations in which the homeless and addicted are able to express their opinions.
“Let them tell you what they are struggling with,” Harvey said. “Don’t just assume everybody there is on drugs or has mental health issues. Who is to say that the people that are sitting, hanging out at Central Park are choosing to use, I’m not saying everybody is because I don’t know everybody there. But those are, who’s to say they couldn’t be functioning and productive citizens if we helped them with the proper tools?”
Harvey added that the prevalence of addiction in New Britain should not be an issue for businesses to come in.
“The businesses are going to come regardless,” Harvey said. “Downtown is cleaner than it has in years, specially the Central Park. I think New Britain has addressed this issue consistently and has done better.”