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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: NIMBY and the homeless mentally ill

Housing for the Pariahs

Urging Responsible Citizenship

Recent editorials about the homeless mentally ill and the laws that make it difficult for families to get treatment for their loved ones didnít mention NIMBY (not in MY back yard).

When the world-wide movement to close asylums reached the United States and California, we were promised residential treatment centers in each community. For the most part, that has not happened. The Mental Health Division of Contra Costa County has been trying to get a locked facility in our county for years, so that families will not have to travel so far to visit their loved ones, but NIMBY and budget priorities have prevented it. As we speak, families who belong to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Contra Costa County (NAMI-CC) are begging the County to purchase a specific property. Our county needs a residential treatment center, but NIMBY and budget priorities have blocked it. Transitional centers are not locked; they are for persons nearer to recovery who stay there an average of 18 months to learn life skills. Then they either move on to independent living, or they go to board and cares.

Group homes and supported independent living are needed, but NIMBY has blocked them. NIMBY occurs when purported Christians and other citizens cross their arms, and say NOT IN MY BACK YARD. NIMBY is a powerful political force. City councils listen to NIMBY.

For years the Alliance tried to establish a group home in Concord, but Concord flouted a Supreme Court decision that said group homes may not be zoned out. Finally the Alliance, with the help of Phoenix Programs of Concord, opened a four bedroom - two bath home with supports for four women. Presently they are hoping to open another small house.

In El Cerrito there is a family who have been there more than 40 years. Their front and back yards are littered with trash. They often live in their parked car. Their screams to each other can be heard all over the neighborhood. If that property were the site of a group home, or residential treatment center, or supported independent living, the grounds would be attractive and the clients would be cared for and supervised.

When most senior housing welcomed disabled folks who lived on SSI, we set up our schizo-phrenic son in a beautiful studio in Oakland. I visited him about four times a week to guarantee his food, supplies, laundry, etc. He bartered his toilet paper for liquor at a local store. He let his new friends from the neighborhood into the building. His "friends" stole his food, his cigarettes, his medicine, and his dishes. He needed protection and supervision. He needs what is called supported independent living.

Since there are few residential treatment centers, or group homes, or supported independent living, many persons with mental illness are warehoused in board and cares. Board and cares keep the medicine locked up and dispense it to clients. Some also manage money on a daily basis. I know of two superlative board and cares with good food, clean environment, phones for exclusive use of clients, and activities, in San Jose, and wonder why there canít be more of them.

From Oakland, we moved John to San Jose, where he has lived in a variety of board and cares. Board and cares are mostly hell. John says the food is disgusting and there is not enough of it. Fortunately, he has discovered Loaves and Fishes at St. Patrickís and eats there twice a week, and twice a week at a Baptist Church. Heís home two or three days each week.

One board and care had l5 clients on two floors. One day when I visited my son, I needed to use the toilet, and started upstairs where I knew it was. The staff came running after me, urging me to use the staff toilet. It turned out that the staff of two or three had exclusive use of the downstairs bathroom, while upstairs there was a bathroom with three stalls without doors for all 15 clients of both genders. I complained to Community Care and Licensing, who forced the operator to designate one bathroom for men and the other for women.

Another time, when John was visiting at home, he remarked, "It's nice to take a shower. The shower in my bathroom is broken and the tub is so greasy." When I asked why he didnít ask the "girls" permission to use their shower, he replied, "Oh the girls don't have shower OR tub." Again I phoned Community Care and Licensing, who made the operator hire a plumber.

Happiness is the Idaho Apartments in El Cerrito. For years it had been the very shady Idaho Motel, and the city was eager to be rid of the eyesore. Rubicon Programs of Richmond took it over. After about three years of NIMBY, loud cries from city watchers who count the money, building code inspections, very much lobbying before the Design and Review Board, the Planning Commission and the City Council, and negotiating loans, Rubicon miraculously produced 28 independent units with individual bathrooms and microwaves, plus an apartment for a live-in manager, a community kitchen for parties, and a room for counselors and counseling. The grounds and public rooms are immaculate. The individual units are so small one can't turn around, but the clients are grateful. Nobody wants to go back to board and cares.

To become a responsible citizen, you must circumcise your heart. (Deuteronomy 30). That means, cut away that which makes us insensitive to humanity. Have we added to NIMBY? Have we let it happen when we might have prevented it? To be a responsible citizen, you must attend meetings. Eleanor Roosevelt said she hated the tedium of endless meetings, but that's how one changes the world.

All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good persons to do nothing. If you are going to be a responsible citizen, it is not enough to do one-on-one acts of charity. Circumcise your hearts. It is more effective if one attends meetings, writes letters to city councils, county supervisors, state legislators, and federal legislators. Find out who is on the committee that controls your issue and lobby that person whether or not s/he is your representative. In the Sunday edition of the Contra Costa Times and the West County Times, on the back page of the Perspective Section, are all the addresses and phones you need.

Joan Bartulovich

El Cerrito
Run dates: 2001-03-18 - 2001-04-01

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