Thursday, March 17, 2011

California town fights against group home for people with mental illnesses

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

RIO DEL MAR, Calif. — Rio Del Mar residents are waging a fight against the county to stop the establishment of a recovery home for mental health patients on Claudius Drive.

More than a dozen residents have lodged complaints with county Supervisor Ellen Pirie over the Mental Health Department's plans to rent a 3,000-square-foot home with ocean views to provide transitional housing for people suffering various forms of mental illness, including severe depression, hallucinations and other issues that impair daily living.

Residents say it's an inappropriate “business” for the neighborhood, and poses a possible security threat to kids and adults.

County health officials signed a lease in February to rent the four-bedroom home, owned by La Selva Beach residents Namvar and Shirin Dinyari since 1989, for $3,900 a month.

Patients will rotate in and out of the eight-bed “respite program” every few days, with approximately 320 staying at the house each year, according to county health officials.

The program will be run by on-site peer counselors, people who have suffered comparable illness, said Leslie Tremaine, the county's mental health director.

The county Mental Health Department received a five-year, $3.5 million grant in September from the federal government to operate what they call “innovative” treatment for people going through “a particularly stressful time,” Tremaine said.

The recovery home on Claudius Drive would be the first such home for mental health patients in Santa Cruz County, she said.

“This is a place for people to receive additional support so we can prevent an actual crisis,” Tremaine said. “This is volunteer, early intervention. It's not an alternative to a hospital. It's an in between place.”

Residents found out about the group home last week when an office supply company showed up at 218 Claudius to prepare moving in desks and computers. No prior notification from county officials had been given residents.

Residents say their quiet, family-oriented upscale neighborhood, with houses close together, is an illogical place to house mental health patients, especially with a turnover in patients every few days.

Neighbors have banded together to halt the group home, including consulting with an attorney to fight their cause on possible legal grounds.

“We have kids running around here, we don't have sidewalks. It just doesn't work here,” said nearby Rio del Mar Boulevard resident Don Toline. “This is out of the norm.”

Greg Dougherty, 62, who has lived on Claudius Drive for 21 years, said he has a degree in social work and has previously worked in a similar facility for adolescents.

He said the narrow cul de sac, with many families, is the wrong environment for people trying to recoup from a mental illness.

“We can't tolerate 350 people coming and going through here,” Dougherty said. “I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for people with mental illnesses, but this is just not an appropriate location. This is a total disregard for the community members here.”

Cindy Jewell, who lives across the street from the planned recovery house, said she will no longer allow her grandchildren, ages 12 and 8, to play in the front yard unsupervised.

“It's just the fear of the unknown,” Jewell said. “We're not going to know these people. They're there five days and then out. They won't care about the community we've built here.”

Pirie, a La Selva Beach resident whose supervisorial district includes Rio del Mar, said the group home didn't raise any red flags for her when she learned about it a week or two ago.

She said such operations don't require any permits from the county Planning Department, nor do they require formal public notification.

“There have been other group living situations in the county that haven't been a problem, and I considered this the same,” Pirie said Thursday. “Legally, a single-family home can be used in this way. It is unfortunate people feel blindsided.”

After receiving numerous complaint letters from residents, Pirie agreed to schedule a neighborhood meeting to allow residents to ask questions and air concerns to county health officials, and for county officials to explain details of the program.

The meeting is 6 p.m. Wednesday in the meeting room at the Rio Sands Motel on Aptos Beach Drive.

Pirie said she cannot attend the meeting due to another meeting in Washington, D.C. for matters related to the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, whose board she chairs.

“People need to be able to sit down and listen and get rid of mis-impressions on both sides,” she said. “We want to find out how this can work in a way that's not harmful to the neighborhood. It can't harm the neighborhood.”

Tremaine said the county wasn't legally required to provide notification to neighbors, but the health department “had every intention” of contacting residents but “simply hadn't had the opportunity to do that yet.”

“We always like to lay the groundwork for good relations,” Tremaine said. “We have lots of experience being good neighbors. We want to go in and meet with the neighbors and push the restart button.”

Tremaine said they plan to begin moving in patients by the end of this month.