Taking Treatment Message to the Streets
It’s a weekday afternoon and the streets are damp from a sudden downpour when county employees Frank Lockman and Angela Sluzalis set out on their rounds. Lockman eases their specially outfitted white Chevy Impala onto the road, and the two begin to map out a plan. They’ll swing by a couple of hot spots and drop by a soup kitchen.
The plexiglass enclosure in the Impala’s back seat — a precaution in the event a passenger becomes unruly — the box of latex gloves and the sanitary wipes hint that theirs is no ordinary job. What will happen this particular evening is anybody’s guess; the team will spend the next several hours cruising the southeast part of Montgomery County, attempting to coax alcoholics and addicts into treatment.
Just south of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, Lockman pulls into a shopping center.
“This is ‘The Beach’ ,” Lockman said. They circle the area and notice two men hanging out. One is chatting on a cellphone; on a nearby cement block is a can of beer. The men eye them warily as the car passes.
The Beach is one place where people come to drink and where they sometimes get rowdy and pass out. For the pair, it has become one target of a new approach officials in Maryland’s largest county are taking to combat what business owners say is a growing nuisance: public drunkenness.
Several times a week, Lockman and Sluzalis will cruise by this place and others where people tend to congregate and drink. It’s a tough task, trying to build trust with a population leery of officialdom. They will sweet-talk. They will cajole. They will shake hands, listen to stories and offer help. They will tell people that there’s a warm bed waiting for them. And even if the answer is no, they will keep going back to them, over and over again.
Those who accept the help will be taken to the hospital for evaluation; if cleared, the pair will take them to the Avery Road Treatment Center. Once there, they’ll be evaluated and possibly admitted for treatment.
The approach is being tried in other communities across the United States, including San Diego and Santa Fe, N.M. Now it’s being tested in Montgomery.
“Rather than remove people for a small period of time and see them come back, we’re trying to solve the problem,” said Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who chairs the County Council’s Public Safety Committee. “We’re trying to give people the chance to recover, which in the long run will be cheaper instead of continuing to lock them up.”
Business owners say drunken people scare away customers. But it’s not a crime in Maryland to be drunk in public, so they say they had difficulty addressing the problem. Some are hopeful about the county’s new effort.
“We’re fully in favor of what they’re doing,” said Erwin H. Mack, executive director of the Takoma/Langley Crossroads Development Authority, who has pushed county officials for years to find a solution. “One of our goals has long been recognition of this problem.”
Officials in Fairfax County, which has a Diversion Outreach Program with similar goals, say their effort has freed police to focus on more serious issues. Larry Peacock, director of the Fairfax Detoxification Center, said people are seeking treatment. Since July 2006, 355 clients have been brought through the program. Of those, more than half have received treatment, he said.
In Montgomery, where officials launched the $310,000 program late last month, two beds at the Avery Road Center have been set aside for those willing to enter treatment.
“This is a more sophisticated effort,” said George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s Health and Human Services Committee and who spearheaded the effort to create the pilot program, which will be evaluated in six months. “We’re trying to connect willing people with services, to get them into treatment. This is a critical problem which is really interfering with the success of businesses.”
Lockman and Sluzalis, who work from 2 p.m. to midnight, four days a week, have yet to be issued their uniforms (white polo shirts and khakis) and business cards, but they have already made connections with community groups and potential clients. Officials hope to hire a third outreach worker and expand the outreach program to six days.
Already, they’ve had some success. Two people have entered treatment programs as a result of their efforts. As the weather warms and word begins to circulate about the program, they hope those numbers will grow.
For Lockman, who has worked in the field of substance abuse treatment for more than a decade, this mission is also personal. Lockman is a former veteran who spent time living on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“I just know for myself, I might not have been out that long if there was something like this,” he said.
In just a few weeks on the job, Lockman and Sluzalis have compiled a list of places where potential clients tend to congregate. Traveling along busy University Boulevard, Sluzalis points to a brick building. Someone told her a nun who works there has strong ties to the Latino community, she tells Lockman. They make a note to stop by sometime to introduce themselves.
In the course of the evening, the team also stops at Shepherd’s Table, a Silver Spring nonprofit organization that provides meals for the homeless. A few men stop Sluzalis and ask her questions. One admires her black windbreaker.
The pair hope that by frequenting places where folks who are targets for treatment congregate, they’ll be able to establish some sort of bond. Still, they acknowledge that no matter how hard they try, there will be some people they can’t win over. But Lockman is philosophical: “We’ll get the good. We’ll get the bad,” he said. “But the most important thing is we’ll get the ones who want treatment.’’
Frank Lockman, left, and Angela Sluzalis, drive through the streets of Montgomery on a regular basis talking to addicts who may benefit from the county’s new treatment program.
Sluzalis and Lockman use a car to patrol the streets that is fitted with a plexiglass partition for protection from potentially unruly passengers.