Town Troubled by Image as Drug Rehabilitation Haven : Treatment: Officials say influx of black inner-city addicts is spoiling Williamsport’s homey flavor.
When Rudy White hit rock bottom after being strung out on heroin and cocaine for more than 15 years, his distraught family knew just what to do.
They sent him through a week of detoxification, bought him some new clothes and handed him a one-way bus ticket to this small town in north-central Pennsylvania’s bucolic Susquehanna Valley.
But why Williamsport?
To most Americans, this is perhaps best known as the motherhood-and-apple-pie community that is both the birthplace and world capital of Little League baseball. But to residents of the drug-plagued, inner-city neighborhoods of Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, it has another reputation.
To them, the onetime logging center at the foot of Bald Eagle Mountain also is known as a place where even the most hardened drug addicts and alcoholics can find the help they need to get straight and start life anew. People in urban ghettos of the tri-state region have dubbed Williamsport “Miracle City.”
“This was the place to come, all right,” said White, 38, a native New Jerseyite who is among the hundreds of inner-city drug and alcohol abusers who have migrated here in hopes of finding a new beginning.
“I’ve been ‘clean’ for the last five years,” he added, “I’m happily married to a great woman who also is recovering. We own our own home, I’ve got a steady job at one of the hospitals here and I’m working on a degree in occupational therapy at the local technical college.”
Such testimony, which is commonplace here, might prompt this town to give itself a well-deserved pat on the back. Communities everywhere are seeking the key to the successful rehabilitation of habitual drug and alcohol abusers, and Williamsport seems to have found the secret.
According to one academic study, a phenomenal 70% of the hard-core drug addicts who remain in Williamsport for more than six months manage to kick the habit and stay generally drug-free thereafter. This success rate has been attributed to the community’s strong support network and the fact that people from urban areas do well when removed from the temptations of the big city. State welfare and medical benefits also provided a financial safety net for recovering addicts at a crucial time.
But many townspeople and local officials now believe Williamsport’s “Miracle City” reputation is something the community could well do without.
While they profess to admire anyone with a sincere desire to overcome their drug or alcohol dependency, they blame the “influx people"--as the newcomers are euphemistically called--for altering Williamsport’s homey, small-town character with their big-city cultural styles and for introducing a raft of hitherto virtually unknown big-city social ills: high crime, AIDS, overcrowded housing and social service problems.
They are not impressed by the high success rate among those who have come here for a second chance; they want the influx people to become “outflux” people.
“The cancer has started. Unless it stops, we’re going to turn into a ghetto,” the city’s public housing director unabashedly declared in an interview with a weekly newspaper called Grit.
The debate over the newcomers, who are overwhelmingly black and estimated to make up as much as 10% of the town’s 35,000 residents, has shattered Williamsport’s customary tranquillity and caused a lot of soul-searching among its citizens.
Even many advocates for the recovering addicts and alcoholics are worried that Williamsport may be becoming a victim of its own success as more and more newcomers continue to strain already overtaxed relief agencies and social services.
“People need a second chance, certainly,” said the Rev. Wayne Scott, 34, a local Baptist minister who is among the town’s most prominent supporters of the newcomers. “But how many people can we realistically be expected to take in? We don’t want everybody’s addicts; we’re saturated already. While we want to help people, there’s only so much you can do.”
The issue has become so explosive that voters last fall dumped a mayor they viewed as sympathetic to the influx people.
Jessie Bloom, who was ousted from office in November after serving one term, said her opponents were concerned about more than the mere number of newcomers.
“The bottom line is it’s a racist issue,” she says.
Her successor, 54-year-old veteran police Lt. Phillip Preziosi, denies that allegation. “The biggest thing I’m trying to overcome is those people coming here and professing they want a better way of life but not making any effort to conform to the ways of Williamsport,” he said.
But critics contend that, far from simply trying to discourage potential misfits and mischief-makers from moving to Williamsport, the mayor and his City Hall allies are plotting ways to drastically curtail social services and raise other barriers so that no inner-city resident would be tempted to come here for treatment--and, in fact, many of those already here will be forced to return home.
For example, a $350,000 state grant to assist in construction of housing for low- and moderate-income families is going unused because the City Council fears that to accept it and expand such housing would only draw more “street people” from the inner cities.
“There is an effort to build an invisible wall around the city,” said Peter J. Grant, head of the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission and an outspoken critic of the city administration. “We’re reducing the availability of low-cost housing. Members of the medical community are making the decision not to accept (welfare) patients. Social services agencies are encouraged not to make their services available to people who are not natives.”
The controversy has its roots in the establishment of a private, in-patient treatment center in nearby Allenwood in 1969 on the site of a former tuberculosis sanitarium. As part of the center’s program, patients were encouraged to live in small communities near Allenwood for “after-care,” the final stage in the treatment process.
The idea was that recovering drug addicts and alcoholics would have a much better chance to continue their abstinence from addictive substances by staying away from the people, places and activities in their old environments.
The first of these newcomers to Williamsport were virtually all white and, living together in so-called sobriety houses with strict rules and regulations, attracted little attention from the townspeople.
But, with the success of the program and the creation of an ever widening support network--which included homeless shelters, soup kitchens and counseling centers--more and more people attempting to recover from addictions were enticed to move into town.
Beginning in the early 1980s, they were arriving in noticeable waves that included increasingly higher percentages of blacks. Typically, newcomers would survive on state public assistance, which pays up to $196 a month for one year for recovering addicts, and federal food stamps until they could find employment.
According to a privately funded study directed in 1988 by Charles Haun, a consultant for social issues, 40% of the newcomers were blacks. Most of them were males between the ages of 27 and 34 and from the metropolitan Philadelphia or New Jersey area. Behind their decision to move here, the report contended, was not only the “pull” of Williamsport but the “push” from their old inner-city neighborhoods.
But most of the black newcomers also brought with them distinctive urban cultural and social styles that often were at odds with the folkways and mores of Williamsport and served to heighten the suspicions and fears of local citizens, including many native black residents.
“It boiled down to a cultural clash,” said Lawrence E. Moore Jr., director of the Bethune Douglass Community Center on Williamsport’s predominantly black northwest side. “This is a small, country-type setting. We were used to keeping our doors unlocked, knowing peoples’ families, saying ‘hi’ and ‘goodby’ to each other on the street.”
Law enforcement authorities also linked the growing numbers of newcomers to a dramatically increasing crime rate. According to police statistics, major crimes have soared from 1,651 in 1986 to 2,482 last year. That category includes homicides, rapes, assaults and thefts.
“I believe you can attribute a lot of it to the people who moved to this community for recovery and failed,” said Williamsport Police Chief Anthony Evans. “Drugs generate crime. I see it as a big problem. It’s changed neighborhoods and left a lot of people living in fear.”
The local Ku Klux Klan, seeking to capitalize on those fears, launched a recruiting drive in town last year and attempted--unsuccessfully, as it turned out--to win city approval for a march through downtown. KKK posters were plastered around town showing a hooded klansman with an outpointed index finger and the words: “Public Service Message. KKK. We Are Closer Than You Think.”
Many blacks say the town has undergone a dramatic change in heart toward recovering people over the past five years.
Doreen White, who is married to Rudy White, the New Jerseyite whose family put him on a bus to Williamsport, said that after she first arrived here and was in need of shelter for herself and her two young children, a group called American Rescue Workers immediately took her in and treated her royally.
“Rent was free, food was free, they clothed you, they gave you money every week, your laundry detergent was free,” she said. “I stayed there four months but there was no limit on how long you could stay.”
She now works full time as a paid supervisor at that same shelter, which has since undergone a $1-million renovation. But, she said, nowadays the agency charges a maximum $200 fee for its services, which includes free meals and clothing, and no one fresh in town, as she was, is permitted to stay.
“Right now we don’t have any black residents,” she added. “My boss refuses to take people off the bus. She wants them to have done something in the community, like being in counseling, before you can stay there.”
Sister Henry, a Roman Catholic nun and Williamsport native who operates the city’s largest soup kitchen, deplores what she views as the mean-spirited and uncharitable atmosphere that has come over the town. She believes the city would be better off by improving social services for those serious about recovering and taking a tougher stance only toward those who are genuine troublemakers.
“We could be put on the map for helping people out if we could only change our attitude,” she said. “The people in Williamsport are just not used to black people. We have this feeling that all these people are not good and we don’t want them. The Christian attitude has to be the basis of this whole thing, but it isn’t. Until we start to live what we hear in church on Sunday morning, nothing’s going to change.”