Cheers and happy tears as city board approves new opioid treatment center on Milwaukee's south side

NOW: Cheers and happy tears as city board approves new opioid treatment center on Milwaukee’s south side

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Community advocates won a key battle Thursday night to open a new opioid treatment center on Milwaukee's south side.

The city's Board of Zoning Appeals approved the new center in a late-night vote.

Advocates say that decision will save lives. The crowd erupted in cheers and happy tears as the vote was announced.

Community Medical Services will be allowed to build a new treatment center on Chase Avenue near Oklahoma, an area they say has been devastated by overdoses.

Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski kicked off a night of emotional testimony by telling the board, "We are up against it in the streets."

But the city of Milwaukee will soon have another access point for critical services.

John Koch, of Community Medical Services, said, "People, if they don't get help with treatment, as we know with the opioid epidemic, and with fentanyl so far, they will die eventually."

The city of Milwaukee suffered more than 630 opioid deaths in 2022, more than three times the number of deaths from homicides. The proposed treatment center would be near the two zip codes that see the highest number of overdoses.

Nicole Fumo supported the proposal. She told the board, "This is something our community needs... desperately."

The center would fill a vacant building on Chase Avenue, will operate from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., and will offer many services in addition to medication.

Koch said, "The main tools that we provide are counseling, peer support services, nurses and doctors visits, all those different pieces that really help a person like myself get their life back on track after struggling for so many years."

About a dozen people in attendance favored the proposal, including families impacted by the crisis. Fumo's daughter Evelyn read aloud from a letter she wrote: "We should have a place for all the people who need help."

But a few people were opposed.

Linda Mongold said she wasn't opposed to the center's purpose, but preferred it be built elsewhere. She said, "I just think it's going to be bringing another element into the neighborhood."

Justin Grombach operates a nearby business and said while he's sensitive to the need for the services, he does worry about the impact other treatment centers have had on his businesses. "There's an increased use of substance abuse, loitering, and vandalism in and around the centers."

But advocates touted the support of several local governments and emergency service providers.

Some of the most powerful testimony came from Chief Lipski, who said, "This offers the only sustainable and proven long-term way of getting someone out of this before they die."

The approval from the board requires a four-year trial period.

Community Medical Services said it could take about 12 months to get the center up and running.

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