Suit highlights the discomfort in the suburbs with addiction centers

CHICAGO – A Chicago-based addiction treatment center that like others across the country has encountered fierce opposition to opening branches in suburbs filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday to compel a suburb to stop blocking its expansion plans.

The lawsuit filed by the Haymarket Center, Chicago’s largest nonprofit treatment service, said the city of Itasca’s rejection of 240-bed facility in a former hotel is in violation of US law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, which discriminates against of those recovering from an illness excludes addictions.

Communities elsewhere, including Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Michigan, have thwarted the opening of such facilities. Proponents of the treatment say the resistance shows how everyone seems to recognize the need for the facilities amid the ongoing opioid crisis – but are reluctant to bring them into their neighborhood.

In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that drug overdoses had skyrocketed during the pandemic, with over 100,000 deaths from overdose recorded from April 2020 to April 2021 – a US record for a period of 12 months. It was an increase of almost 30% compared to the roughly 78,000 deaths in the same period last year.

Many residents in Itasca, a middle-class community of 9,000 people, fought a two-year battle against the Haymarket facility, saying they feared it would lead to an increase in crime and loss of tax revenue, and the Itasca ambulance service with an ambulance would burden.

Some in Itasca and from nearby suburbs supported the plans, saying a lack of facilities made treatment less accessible to suburbs.

The opponents held several street protests. During one in 2019, a supporter of the facility, Felicia Miceli, held a photo of Louie Miceli, her son, who died of a heroin overdose in 2012 at the age of 24, as protesters walked by.

“There were people who would come up to me and say, ‘Sorry for your loss, but we don’t want him here,'” she recalled in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Other people stared at me.”

She added, “I don’t want to hold up a picture of my beautiful son who is gone. But it is necessary. “

Miceli, who also founded a treatment advocacy group, believes the increased isolation during the pandemic explains the rise in overdoses. She said she attended a funeral or wake for someone who had overdosed every few weeks for the past four months.

“The opposite of addiction is connection,” she said. “And those connections were lost during COVID.”

The lawsuit alleges that Itasca officials were “strategically encouraged, deliberately contributed, and unduly adversely affected by this” not in my backyard “opposition.” It accused them of seeking excuses to market the proposal amid “discriminatory stereotyping the mission of Haymarket ”and the patients he would serve.

Village administrator Carie Anne Ergo declined to comment on Tuesday.

After around 35 hearings, the Itasca Planning Commission and Board of Directors unanimously voted against the approval of Haymarket’s plans late last year.

The lawsuit said Haymarket went out of its way to address some of Itasca’s concerns, including by promising to use a private ambulance to answer calls from the treatment facility.

Ahead of Tuesday’s filing in Chicago federal court, Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn denied discriminating against underpinned opposition, saying the proposed facility did not meet criteria that apply to everyone.

Pruyn said at a pre-voting hearing against the plans that his main concern was financial. He claimed that Itasca, one of the smallest parishes in the region, “would have to bear 100% of the cost, risk and burden of maintaining a facility … and would accommodate residents beyond Itasca.” He said he finally concluded come that “Haymarket’s request to our village is unreasonable.”

Interest in the plan in Itasca was great from the start. An early hearing in a high school gym to allow the public to comment was postponed because the venue was unable to accommodate the 1,300+ people who turned up.

Pressure on Itasca will not only come from the new civil lawsuit.

Two months ago, Chicago-based US Attorney John Lausch sent a letter to Itasca Mayor informing him that prosecutors are investigating whether the city has violated federal anti-discrimination laws when they rejected Haymarket’s proposal. The letter contained a three-page list of documents investigators were looking for, including communications between Itasca officers.

The lead attorneys in Haymarket’s lawsuit are from Access Living, a Chicago-based advocacy group that helped win groundbreaking cases for the rights of people with disabilities.

Haymarket says that between 2017 and 2018, nearly 2,000 people who recovered from an addiction living in communities outside of Chicago were treated at its Chicago facility, which included hundreds from the Itasca area, according to the Legal action.

Those who cannot pay for treatment in for-profit centers are particularly at risk, according to the file. Haymarket cites figures that only about 10% of those who qualify for such services actually receive them.

The lawsuit names the village, Pruyn and the Itasca Planning Commission as defendants. It applies for an order that enables the institution to open, unspecified damages and pay legal fees.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm

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