Drug Center May Close for Lack of Funds After 15 Years

Times Staff Writer

A drug abuse center that has been a fixture on Venice's Ocean Front Walk for more than a decade may be forced out of business.

Tuum Est, a nonprofit drug rehabilitation program at 503 Ocean Front Walk, is plagued with financial problems. Director Dennis Dowe said the residential center, which can serve 58 drug and alcohol abusers at a time, will be turned over to another agency unless it can raise at least $100,000.

"I think it's very safe to say that without some additional community support in terms of both finances and people committing themselves to work on our board, that the chances of (closing) are excellent," Dowe said.

Tuum Est, which roughly translates as "It's Up to You," is known as one of the county's toughest and most successful drug programs. The center's residents submit to a rugged two-year treatment regimen and operators of the highly structured program claim a 40% success rate, which is twice the national average.

In Debt Since 1984

Tuum Est has been in debt since 1984, when the 69-year-old brick building that serves as its headquarters underwent more than $1 million in mandatory earthquake safety and renovation work. Since the work was performed, Dowe said the center has been unable to meet its annual $1.5-million budget.

"As costs have gone up, we've suffered a shortfall," Dowe said. "From month to month we have not been able to meet our costs."

The county Health Services Department provides about 40% of the center's funds. The rest of its money comes from private donations and small business enterprises such as the print shop operated by its residents.

Dowe said Tuum Est could regain its financial footing by admitting patients with private insurance. But he added that the nine-member Tuum Est board of directors is more inclined to transfer management of the center to another drug rehabilitation program known as the Phoenix House.

Mark Winogrond, the board's chairman, could not be reached for comment. But people close to the center say the board has already made an unofficial commitment to Phoenix House, a Santa Ana-based drug treatment program with residential facilities in seven cities nationwide.

Volunteer Bill McNally, one of the original forces behind Tuum Est, is leading an 11th-hour drive to stop the possible Phoenix House takeover. He heads a 17-member organization called the "Ad Hoc Committee to Save Tuum Est."

'Throwing in the Towel'

McNally said the Tuum Est board is "throwing in the towel" too soon. He contends that the center can be saved if the board delays its decision for 30 days, allowing the ad hoc committee enough time to rally community support.

"There are a lot of people in this area who owe Tuum Est their lives," McNally said. "But no one knows that the center is in any trouble. The board has been secretive. It has been content just to let the center go belly up."

Director Dowe also stressed the center's importance.

"This program is a very important part of the service delivery system on the Westside," Dowe said. "It has been for more than 15 years."

Tuum Est was founded by a former heroin addict named Jessie Pratt in 1970. The center initially had five residents and was based in a two-story wood frame house on Venice's Vista Place. It moved to Ocean Front Walk in 1974.

The center has about 28 staff members and serves an estimated 250 people a year. Tuum Est also operates a center in Turlock, Calif., and specializes in multiple-drug abusers, according to organizers at the center.

The Tuum Est program begins with orientation. Phase 2 begins when the resident starts job training. In Phase 3, the resident takes a job outside the center but continues to live inside.

The resident moves out of the center in Phase 4, but continues to attend counseling sessions. To graduate from the program, the resident must have a high school diploma, a steady job, a house or an apartment and at least $1,500 in the bank.

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