Eugenio Russi has heard the complaints.
A methadone clinic on the Lower West Side would bring more crime to a residential area that has been on the rebound.
Syringes would cover the streets.
Drug addicts – and possibly dealers – would frequent the same places children roam and wait for the school bus in the morning.
But Russi, the executive director of Hispanics United of Buffalo, feels those grievances are misconceptions. He and many other supporters are out to change them.
About 40 people gathered outside Hispanics United of Buffalo to pray Saturday morning, but the reason for the assembly was twofold.
They prayed for those who have lost their lives to heroin addiction, as well as addicts who are still struggling with opioids.
But the group also prayed that the planned methadone clinic where they stood at 254 Virginia St. would eventually come to fruition despite staunch opposition from neighborhood residents, Erie County and the Buffalo Common Council.
They want to save heroin addicts’ lives, Russi said.
“We’re sitting here arguing about where the clinic should be [and] we lost focus of the fact that there are a lot of people that are dying out there,” said Russi, calling heroin addiction a “terrible epidemic.”
Throughout the U.S., heroin addiction and abuse has increased 75 percent over the last four years. In Erie County, the number of deaths from heroin overdose rose 85 percent between 2012 and 2013.
“We knew that this was something that was needed,” Russi said.
As for crime-related concerns, Russi said a study by Dr. Susan Boyd of the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that crime has dropped in communities where methadone clinics are present, with fewer drug-fueled break-ins.
Andy Garcia, former director of the city’s substance abuse program and president of Columbus Hospital, said he wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the methadone treatment he received for four years in the early 1970s while in college.
“I would have died a long time ago,” he said.
Yvette Gonzalez, of Grant Street, hopes a methadone clinic at HUB could save the life of her 26-year-old daughter who is battling heroin addiction.
“It’s a fight every day,” she said. “It is not only mental but it is a physical addiction. She is very young, she’s beautiful, and she wants to stop, but it’s beyond her control. So this clinic opening would help her and so many people to live instead of dying.”
Following the two-minute prayer vigil led by the Rev. Samuel Rivera of the Association of Hispanic Pentecostal Pastors of Western New York, Russi offered a tour of the facility. The methadone clinic is virtually ready for operation despite the fact that it has yet to receive certification from the state.
The state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services told The Buffalo News this past week that the application remains under review. The methadone clinic is also being planned by Acacia Network, a New York City nonprofit agency.
When entering the building, once a Methodist church, patients would be greeted by a receptionist and monitored by multiple surveillance cameras. To proceed to the methadone clinic on the second floor, patients would need to swipe an identification card and have the receptionist grant access to use the elevator.
On the second floor is a spacious waiting area and an enclosed nurse station, where two nurses would dispense methadone. Patients would swipe their IDs again at the station and machines would pour the amount of methadone doctors prescribed into small cups. Patients would then drink the liquid before a nurse.
In all, the process would last between 60 and 90 seconds.
“They’ve got to do their business and then go about their business,” said Russi, a longtime parole officer who praised the facility’s security. He said security guards would monitor the area around the building.
Hispanics United spent about $150,000 in renovating the facility after receiving conditional approval from Erie County, Russi said.
“We put a lot of money into this organization. Why? Because we want to serve the community,” he said. “This is the most underserved population in the City of the Buffalo and one of the poorest communities in the country. It’d be shameful for us not to get involved.”
Other residents of the community aren’t convinced, however.
“Methadone clinics need to be near medical clinics or on commercial strips, and there’s plenty of those around,” said Paul Szpakowski, a Virginia Street resident of 30 years. “There’s no reason to put it in here in the middle of a residential neighborhood that’s really been struggling to come out of poverty. It’s just beginning to turn.”
Marcelino Hernandez, a retired Buffalo Police lieutenant who moved to Virginia Street two years ago from Lancaster, agreed.
“My brother was a drug addict,” he said. “He went to the methadone clinics; it did nothing for him. He just passed away. It doesn’t solve the problem ... it just stabilizes them so that they can go about the day and find the next fix from their dealer, who’ll probably be waiting for them outside the clinic.”
David Rodriguez, chairman of the board of Hispanics United, said the organization hopes to change the community’s opinion.
“Anybody who has any doubts or concerns, come knock on our door. It’s open,” he said.