An intense debate over a proposed drug and alcohol treatment center for recovering addicts in Wheaton is drawing overflow crowds to city hall and appears to be escalating.
The city's planning and zoning board heard more than three hours of public comment Tuesday night and will meet again Jan. 23 to formulate a recommendation concerning the proposed center for the full city council.
Neighbors and nearby shopping center owners already have hired lawyers to voice their opposition to the plan. Meanwhile, the most emotional pleas in support of Haymarket Center's proposal have come from family members who lost loved ones to heroin overdoses and blame the uproar on the stigma associated with drug use.
The proposal comes amid a rising death toll from overdoses across the suburbs. Through mid-December, DuPage County recorded 81 confirmed opioid overdose deaths, up from 79 in 2016, the coroner's office said.
"If you have not been touched by addiction, mental illness, suicide, any of these things, I understand the fear," said Triva Hall, whose relatives struggled with addiction. "But there is a need. There is a need for this in Wheaton. My children have lost friends in the Wheaton schools."
Opponents don't dispute that treatment options are needed in the fight against the opioid crisis.
"That's not the point," said Tom Aiello, a Wheaton father who lives on Hawkins Circle. "The point is about responsible site location where this facility is going to be placed."
Haymarket Center, a nonprofit group that operates a 400-bed complex in Chicago, hopes to provide both inpatient and outpatient care in a vacant medical office building next to a day-care center and in front of a shopping center that includes a movie theater and a toy store.
Dr. Neelam Rozanski, an anesthesiologist who lives in Wheaton, called the site "quite possibly the worst location" for a detox and rehab center.
"Intensive detoxification clinics are the emergency rooms for addiction and need to be located near a hospital and other emergency services," Rozanski said. "This is actually to the benefit of the drug-addicted patient, especially those addicted to IV drugs who are at most risk for severe medical complications."
The center would serve patients 18 and older in a one-story building with round-the-clock security. Surveillance cameras would look out onto the parking lot.
But those measures don't reassure residents worried about crime, loitering and property values if a drug-treatment center opens on the property on East Loop Road.
"They understand that is the obligation of society to provide love and support to people and their families who are in the grips of something oftentimes well beyond their control, but they also believe that they have a stake in this, too," said Shawn Collins, an attorney representing neighbors.
During a heated meeting Tuesday, Dr. Dan Lustig, Haymarket's president and CEO, defended the proposed center in front of a crowd of roughly 100. Haymarket selected the site partly because of its size and its central location in the county. Lustig also said the costs of build-out aren't "going to be expensive."
"Everyone I hear is in agreement that we should be providing treatment, but the answer is 'not here, not at this location,' and I actually say let's turn around and talk about the families that need this location so that their loved ones can be close to home," Lustig said.
He said he's spoken with DuPage parents whose children received out-of-state treatment.
"And what happened was when their children came home there was nothing in place," he said. "There was no infrastructure in place and many of those children either relapsed or they died."
Lustig and other advocates said they've encountered misperceptions in the debate.
"What we're also hearing tonight is a lot of words being weaponized," Lustig said. "I saw in a lot of flyers going around that I'm serving IV drug users or I'm serving homeless people or I'm serving poor people. There are federal requirements to every license in this state and across this country that those are priority populations, but if you don't have that population here, as I recently stated, then they don't get served. We serve the DuPage residents."
In response to arguments that such a facility belongs on a hospital campus, Lustig pointed to the founders of the 42-year-old organization he runs, calling them pioneers of "social setting detox."
"They proved over the last 45 years that substance abuse treatment can be done safely, more efficiently and more economically in a community-based organization," Lustig said.
Haymarket would offer a detoxification program and use an intake assessment on patients to determine the level of care they receive. Providers would offer medication-assisted treatment to help recovering addicts control cravings and withdrawal symptoms.