By Francisco Alvarado
As a heroin epidemic builds in South Florida, one drug interventionist is finding it difficult to get Miami-Dade County’s assistance to open a long-term treatment facility.
John Schmidt, founder of the non-profit addiction services company Marvin’s Corner, isn’t looking for any county dollars. He wants a surplus county building he can use as a home for addicts, particularly ones hooked on heroin.
Schmidt has been asking the county for a piece of idle property since 2008. The only thing he’s gotten is the runaround, he says.
“We have gotten so much resistance from county staff,” says Schmidt. “I’m a person who knows how to help junkies, but I get treated with suspicion.”
During Schmidt’s six-year quest, the highly addictive drug has become deadly popular again. Heroin-related deaths in Miami-Dade jumped from 15 to 33, or 120 percent, between 2011 and 2012. During the same period in Broward, heroin deaths tripled from three to nine.
BrowardBulldog.org reported in January that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) cited those numbers in declaring that a heroin epidemic is underway in South Florida.
Jim Hall, the Nova Southeastern University epidemiologist who authored the NIDA report, said Miami-Dade has an estimated 122,000 drug addicts, but bed facilities for less than 14,000. He said Schmidt offers a solid approach to dealing with the county’s “hardcore heroin addicts.”
‘AN IMPORTANT ADDITION TO TREATMENT OPTIONS’
“The therapeutic community approach John hopes to establish is an important addition to treatment options,” said Hall. “John is one of the most persistent persons I know, but he’s had frustrations acquiring a property.”
After two potential sites fell through, Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson suggested Schmidt look at an empty county-owned apartment building in Liberty City. The place is earmarked for use as temporary housing for people left homeless due a fire or a natural disaster, but has been vacant for several years.
Miami-Dade’s Internal Services Department, which manages county real estate, wants to charge Schmidt’s nonprofit $7,000 a month rent. Schmidt and his supporters say Marvin’s Corner can’t afford that.
“The proposed rent is somewhat unfair,” Schmidt says of the county’s demand. “We haven’t had time to generate money. We are self-reliant with few private backers.”
Leland Salomon, assistant director of Miami-Dade Internal Services, says the property is owned by another county department, Community Action and Human Services, which based the proposed lease rate on what it charges tenants at other similar facilities.
Schmidt says Marvin’s Corner is named after a late close friend and modeled on the Delancy Street Foundation, the San Francisco-based drug rehab facility that helped Schmidt kick his heroin dependency in the 1970s.
Schmidt, who has been clean ever since, says addicts residing at Marvin’s Corner would have to live in a military style boot camp environment. They won’t have to pay any fees, but would have to agree to work for the organization by helping to operate a variety of businesses used to support itself, like a flower shop and a cleaning service for office buildings.
Schmidt’s approach has won over clergy leaders and community activists, who have expressed their support to the county via letters and citizen presentations.
Father Patrick O’Neill, who served as president of St. Thomas University in the Eighties, and Rabbi Solomon Schiff, director emeritus of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Chaplaincy Service, have agreed to be spirtual advisors for clients of Marvin’s Corner. “I am 1,000 percent behind John,” O’Neill says. “We are not asking for anything more than giving us a couple of years to show that we can make a difference.”
Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of the inner city non-profit group, People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or P.U.L.S.E., says letting Marvin’s Corner set up would be a significant step in addressing a serious drug problem in Overtown and Liberty City.
“We see Marvin’s Corner as a facility that can help people who can’t help themselves get off drugs,” Wilcox says. “If the county has a facility that is not being utilized, let him use it while he looks for money from private contributors.
Others who have written letters of support for Marvin’s Corner include Diane Landsberg, chief executive of The Non-Violence Project USA, H. Bruce Hayden of Banyan Health Systems and Timothy P. Ryan, the recently retired director of Miami-Dade’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Department.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez would also like to see Schmidt succeed. His chief of staff, Ricardo Gonzalez, has advised Schmidt to negotiate a lower rent.
“There is no reason why the county should demand that sort of rent,” Gonzalez says. “The county should have some flexibility in light of the [heroin] problem he is trying to address.”
Schmidt says he’s tried to work out better terms, but staffers from the internal services department won’t budge. “They really haven’t played nice,” he says.
COMMISSIONERS CAN’T FIND A WAY
Despite the various factions supporting him and agreeing there’s a need for more treatment facilities, none have found a way to make Schmidt’s dream happen.
Suarez or Edmondson could ask their commission colleagues to allow Marvin’s Corner to use the property for free for a year or two conditional on Schmidt producing results. However, Gonzalez said Suarez is deferring to Edmonson since the building is in her district. Edmonson did not return two messages seeking comment.
Schmidt and Seth Gordon, a Miami lobbyist who has volunteered to help the drug counselor, say county bureaucrats seem to have gone out of their way to obstruct the establishment of a residential heroin treatment facility by Marvin’s Corner.
They claim county officials twice rescinded offers to give Schmidt properties that would have worked for his planned facility. The first one, about a year ago, was a shuttered jail near the Golden Glades Interchange, Gordon said.
“We were told that some commissioner and the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust were interested in it,” Gordon says. “So that was no longer available.”
A few months later, Schmidt and Gordon met with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Leland Salomon and other county officials about taking over a shell of a building that once housed airmen at the former Homestead Air Force Base. They left the meeting convinced Marvin’s Corner would be given the property.
NO ‘HARD BALL’
“That was taken off the table as well,” Gordon says. “John is a one-man band, but the county wants to treat him like he is General Motors.”
In an interview, Salomon insisted that he and his staff are not playing hardball. “The rules for John are the same as they are for anyone else,” Salomon says
He said Schmidt was never promised the closed jail or the Homestead site.
“Nothing was offered to Marvin’s Corner other than a site visit to see if this property could be adapted to their use,” said Salomon.
After the visit to the old jail, the county’s corrections department decided that it wanted to consider other options. Meanwhile, the Homestead site is going to be leased back to the United States military, Salomon said.
“We have also been requested by the US Army not to lease this property to a third party as it may pose a security risk for a new headquarters building,” Salomon said.