Services agency draws ire as it grows Sunday, August 14, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Boston Globe West
FRAMINGHAM -- Andrew Moskevich doesn't look like a drug addict.  With his neatly trimmed hair and clear eyes, he looks like the honor student he once was.

At 21, Moskevich, who says he comes from a loving, middle-class family, has been drug-free for more than a year and a half.  And he says he couldn't have kicked his OxyContin addiction without the social services agency that has been vilified for attracting people like him to town.

Without SMOC's help, he says matter-of-factly, "I'd be dead."

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council Inc. is a Framingham-based agency serving about 20,000 people annually through Head Start for preschoolers, Meals on Wheels for the elderly, and programs for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence.

Its supporters say SMOC provides much-needed help to the vulnerable, the poor, and the sick.

But a vocal group of residents accuses SMOC of being arrogant, of forcing facilities into neighborhoods where they are inappropriate, and of costing taxpayers money because many of its properties are tax-exempt.  They worry that property values will plummet and crime will rise if more people struggling with drug addiction move to Framingham.

In recent months, "Stop SMOC" signs have begun sprouting around town.

Moskevich, who now works for the agency and just got a full scholarship to Framingham State College, said the signs are disheartening.

"We're talking human lives here," he said in his soft Boston accent.  "We're talking about my life."

Life turned grim for the Peabody High School grad before he sought help.  His father threw him out of the house after discovering his son was stealing money from him.  In an effort to pay for his habit, Moskevich stole heirloom jewelry from a family friend.  In his darkest hours, even his grandmothers wouldn't take him in.

Moskevich ended up in a homeless shelter and then agreed to civil commitment in a state hospital for 30 days to sober up.  After that, he had nowhere to go.  He estimated that he dialed a few hundred phone numbers looking for a program that could help him.  Finally, he found what he needed -- a SMOC program in Framingham, where he lived most of last year with about 16 other young men battling addictions.

A proposal for another residential program has sparked the latest outcry against SMOC.  The program, planned for a former nursing home on Winter Street, would help recovering drug abusers and their families.  Some nearby residents have been so outraged that they formed a citizens group, set up a website, and planted protest signs in their yards.

Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, or STEPPS, has criticized what it sees as an invasion of the town by social service agencies. 

"Our biggest complaint is the concentration of social service shelters and facilities in Framingham," said Janice Skelley, a member of STEPPS.  "Our biggest objective is to put a cap on any further expansion of them."

Skelley said it would be better to locate such programs away from residential areas, pointing to the former Medfield State Hospital as a possible site.

"We do our best to maintain our homes, keep our property values up," said Skelley.  "If a house went up for sale next to a homeless drug rehab program, would you be apt to buy that house?"

Ted Cosgrove, a Town Meeting member representing the Winter Street area and a member of STEPPS, said Framingham has a history of welcoming social services, which is laudable, but the town is oversaturated.

"What concerns me on a townwide level . . . is there are a number of social service agencies that consider Framingham to be their hub, but there is no communication between the town and these agencies," Cosgrove said.

STEPPS scored a victory earlier this month when Town Meeting passed a measure that will force the Winter Street program (and all other such programs in the future) to submit to Planning Board review.  Local officials have also established a committee to scrutinize social service providers in town and draft a program that asks agencies getting tax breaks to make "payments in lieu of taxes."

Founded in 1966, SMOC has about 500 employees, roughly 150 of whom live in Framingham, according to Jerry Desilets, SMOC's planning director.  The agency owns 82 properties in town and pays taxes on 48 of them, about $180,000 annually, he said.  The agency has an operating budget of about $49.5 million.

If SMOC had to pay taxes on its properties listed as tax-exempt by the town, it would have more than $139,000 added to its bill, according to a Globe West calculation.

At a SMOC homeless shelter on a recent afternoon, three people put a human face on the debate.

All three came from out of town and had at least one alcoholic parent, and at least two had committed crimes to feed their drug and alcohol addictions.  All three wore crosses around their necks and said they were straight -- and trying desperately to stay that way.

The three were staying in the sober sections of the Common Ground wet shelter, which also accepts people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Across the street from a bar, the shelter is in an old red brick building.  It is rundown, dimly lit, and filled with thin cots covered with worn, mismatched sheets.

About 50 people had stayed there the night before.  The staff has about 60 days to move a person out of the shelter and into a program, said Moses Mohammed, the shelter director.

One 31-year-old resident interviewed said she had been clean and sober about 100 days.

The woman, whose name was withheld because of the sensitive nature of her recovery, was clear about why she wants to change her life.

"I have a 4-year-old daughter that needs me," said the woman, who proudly shows off photos of her smiling daughter in a pink dress.  "There's nothing I wouldn't do for her."

The girl, who lives with her grandmother in Vermont, is the only one of the woman's three children not put up for adoption.  "Maybe someday they're going to want to find me," she said of her other two daughters.  "And I don't want to be a drunken junkie laid up somewhere."

The woman, who said she had turned to prostitution to buy alcohol, cocaine, and crack, was excited that afternoon because she had just been accepted into a sober housing program in Marlborough.  With more stability in her life, she said, she also planned to look for a job.

"It's going to teach me responsibility. . . . It's a nice residential area.  It's walking distance to shops and stuff," she said, noting she has no car.

State Representative Tom Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat who also represents the Winter Street area of Framingham, has long championed social services.

But Sannicandro grew up in the Winter Street neighborhood, and his father still lives there.  He said the neighbors have legitimate concerns about SMOC removing properties from the tax rolls.

If a town is providing more than its fair share of social services, said Sannicandro, then the state should compensate its taxpayers.  He is studying the issue, he said, and hopes to file legislation soon to make that happen.

Moskevich looks at SMOC in a different light.

Interviewed at the SMOC offices this month, he said that even that morning he had struggled with a desire to try OxyContin again.  When he has such urges, he said, he will "tell on himself" to a friend or counselor.

"It's scary, but it would be more scary if I was on my own," said Moskevich.  "Feelings of relapse are inevitable.  Relapse isn't inevitable."

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