SIDMAN – Retired police officer Don Hess tried to allay neighbors’ concerns, opening a town hall meeting Thursday on plans for Allegiance Rehabilitation drug treatment center in the former Forest Hills Middle School.
Forty security cameras will monitor the grounds to supplement the on-site security staff when the 64-bed inpatient treatment center opens later this year, Hess said.
“I was asked to review the security plans,” Hess told about 100 people gathered in the former school auditorium. “Every door has a camera and a sensor.”
After his presentation and a video introducing the overall plans, Hess said Allegiance CEO Amanda Jennings and her husband, project manager Broc Jennings, were available to hear concerns.
Neighbor Curt Long was the first to take the microphone.
“If somebody leaves this property, what’s going to be done?” Long asked.
“We we are actually going take all your questions and we are going to answer them at the next event,” Allegiance staffer Jamie Hart answered, sparking an eruption of shouts from those attending.
Long said Hart’s response did not reflect the notice neighbors received for Thursday’s town hall.
“It said we are going to be here for questions and answers,” Long said. “Now you are feeding us a line of crap already.”
Broc Jennings then returned to the stage, explaining the situation is complicated for drug treatment centers because patients are protected by privacy laws.
Patients who check themselves out will be required to have transportation to their homes or next place of treatment, but centers are limited in who they can inform about patients who leave without checking themselves out, Jennings said.
The back-and-forth continued for another hour, with the event deteriorating into a shouting match at times.
Responding to questions, Jennings said the windows will not be secured and there are no plans to enclose the property in a fence. High grass in a field behind the old school will be cut when the center opens because there are plans to use it for recreation, he said.
Heather Smith of Scalp Level urged neighbors to have compassion and welcome addicts who are seeking treatment to return to normal life. Her son, Zachary “Zach” James Smith, died from a drug overdose at the age of 22 in May 2016.
“Say one of your kids overdoses, and they need a rehab. Wouldn’t you rather it be here or some other city?” Smith said.
Neighbors are more concerned with how the treatment center will operate, Justin Beyer, of Frankstown Road, said.
“Everybody agrees they need help,” Beyer said, asking if the center will concentrate on Cambria County residents who decide to seek help.
“Or is it some place where people who broke the law and are court ordered to be here?” Beyer asked. “That makes a lot of people nervous.”
He asked if the owners might consider a fence in the future.
“The idea here is we are not a jail,” Jennings said.
While Allegiance plans to promote its services to local residents who are seeking help, it will also accept patients who are under court ordered rehabilitation, Jennings said.
But rehab is an option those facing drug charges can select in place of incarceration, he added.
“They want to be here,” he said. “If they don’t want to be here, they can check themselves out.”
But patients will not be released if they are in a “drug-induced rage” or any state that would endanger the patient or others, he said.
He stressed that Allegiance will not be an outpatient Methadone clinic where patients come and go daily.
Several questioned the cost of treatment, noting that Allegiance will be a for-profit business. Jennings said the company is working with insurance companies and other payers to provide as much help as possible.
“We are going to try to work with them any way we can,” he said. “The idea is to help as many people as we can.”
One speaker said children have always used the school property for playground, and Allegiance will take away that option.
“I don’t think your children will be in danger at all,” Jennings said. “We want to be better every day. We are going to have security guards on site, and we are going to take every precaution we can to make sure your kids are safe.”
Allegiance has not applied for its state license to operate a rehabilitation facility because construction continues at the former school. Security details are still being worked out and will be included in the license application, Jennings said,
After the town hall event, Beyer said he was encouraged.
“Everybody has a better understanding of how they will operate,” Beyer said. “I think they addressed a lot of concerns. Hopefully, they are going to take some of the suggestions into consideration.”
Long was less optimistic.
“They couldn’t answer any real questions,” Long said. “They were not prepared. They have no experience. They weren’t even going to stay up front and answer any questions.”