Drunk and Disorderly 

Dodge Flower residents consider a detox center a curse

Barbara Lehmann treads cautiously through an obstacle course of broken glass. Then she squats to retrieve a vodka bottle, its contents gulped away the night before. She gently drops this remnant of despair into her black garbage bag, before aiming toward a malt-liquor bottle several few feet away.

Lehmann is among a small team of Dodge Flower Neighborhood residents who convene many Saturday mornings along this stretch of asphalt. Their chore is retrieving spent booze bottles strewn between a 7-Eleven on the corner of Grant Road and Dodge Boulevard, and a detox center a couple of blocks away.

A lot of times, she says, drinkers hit the liquor store with a singular goal: reaching that high plateau of intoxication which qualifies them for admission to the treatment center. Sure, many of those boozers may be seeking recovery from their addiction, Lehmann says. But she also suggests that others crave nothing more than food and shelter. For that, they inflict litter and public drunkenness on this middle-class, midtown neighborhood.

"I've heard it said that they just want three hots and a cot, and that's what they get," she says. "It's just a revolving door for them."

Nearby residents have broached this issue countless times with officials from the treatment center, Compass Behavioral Health Care. But Lehmann claims that little has changed. For example, a very intoxicated man, apparently Compass-bound, recently wandered down the street and frightened kids on their way to school.

Such incidents have apparently eroded any semblance of goodwill between Compass and its neighbors. "We would like to see them leave our neighborhood," she says. "They should move out to Kino Hospital, where there is actually treatment for people with the psychiatric issues these people have."

As the county's only detoxification facility, Compass can handle up to 60 clients at any given time, and treats roughly 3,000 people a year. It's operated under contract to the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which coordinates behavioral health and prevention services throughout the region.

Neal Cash is the partnership's CEO. He suggests that Compass gets blamed for all of the ills of a neighborhood plagued by its own drug and alcohol problems. "I understand their frustration," he says. "But I also understand that we're somewhat of an easy target when something is not going right."

Before Compass set up shop, he says, the buildings it now occupies had been a dilapidated nursing home "with excrement splattered on the walls. There were crack houses across the street. We've gotten in there, and I think we've built a pretty nice campus."

Claims that Compass actually enhances a blighted area anger Lehmann and her neighbors. "Their argument is that our neighborhood already had a problem before Compass moved in, so they're not responsible for the problems they've created," she says. "Well, you could say that about any neighborhood in Tucson. But the problem is exacerbated by the presence of that facility."

The clash extends to Compass policies, such as one stating that the treatment center will remove clients from the area once they leave detox. Cash says the center nearly always lives up to that pledge; Lehmann cites plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Still, one opinion that Lehmann and Cash do share is that the 7-Eleven doesn't help matters. "I'd like to know how much the store's liquor sales increased when Compass went in," Lehmann says.

At various times, Compass officials and the neighborhood association have met with store owner Jim Nutini, asking to make the liquor displays less obvious. They even attended a parley orchestrated by former City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar's office a few years ago. "And nothing ever changed," Lehmann says.

But Nutini rattles off the steps he's taken, from drastically shrinking his liquor displays and beer coolers, to pulling out the pay phones so people can't loiter. "It's probably cost me 10 or 15 percent of sales," he says.

Instead, he blames Compass "for attracting all kinds of people to this area. I can't tell you how many times someone has come in here drunk and wanting to buy liquor. We tell them we won't sell to them. Then they get mad and say, 'Well, I'm not drunk enough. I tried to get into Compass, and they won't take me.'"

As a professor of urban studies at the University of Michigan, Christopher Smith has conducted extensive research into the placement of treatment centers. He says it's a common source of conflict, with few easy answers. "On the one hand, you don't want people with behavioral or substance-abuse issues to be segregated off from the rest of society. But it can create serious issues for a neighborhood, especially if something happens, such as something affecting children."

That's exactly what happens here, says Lehmann, who notes that children constantly trek past liquor debris. Intoxicated people also wander the neighborhood, and not long ago, one resident discovered a drunk man passed out on her couch.

However, others say that occasional friction is the cost of providing a vital community service. Among them is Stephania O'Neill, the CEO of Compass. She says she operated another rehabilitation center in a different part of the Dodge Flower neighborhood for years, and has seen tensions ebb and flow over time. "Periodically, this issue re-emerges, and I think the reason why it has now is because we have that big sign, and we're much more visible."

According to Dr. Sally Dodds, the company's vice president for development, Compass has tried to counteract that high profile by reaching out to the neighbors. "We've been dealing with this for a long time. Our clinical directors have met with the residents. We've done everything we can do, short of saying to the Community Partnership, 'Gosh, thank you very much for the contract, but we don't want it.' We couldn't do that. We couldn't turn service away from our community."

In the meantime, folks like security guard James Hall must continue to escort drunken community members off the premises of Mountain Shadows Apartments, a complex sandwiched between Compass and the convenience store. He calls it a steady parade of bad behavior. "I see people get off the bus at Grant and Dodge and go to 7-Eleven, so they can get inebriated enough to get into Compass."

Hall is unusually well-qualified for the task of shepherding such inebriates; he not only has a background in behavioral health, but also pastors a congregation on weekends. He's rather philosophical about the challenges facing this patchwork neighborhood.

"To me, Dodge Boulevard at Grant is like the head of a snake," he says. "And anything that gets fed into that snake, we end up having to deal with it."

More by Tim Vanderpool


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