Echo Park Home for Mentally Ill Gets Loan

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, Joseph Clark was the kind of guy nobody, but nobody, wanted to see in his neighborhood.

"I was so scared and afraid of things, I'd walk around all night," Clark recalled. "I wouldn't eat or sleep for two or three days . . . until I just passed out somewhere."

Today, Clark says his schizophrenia is "stabilized." The 31-year-old man is off welfare, has a full-time job and his first apartment in five years. "I'm paying taxes," he said.

Neighborhood Opposition

That is part of the reason why Clark became exasperated Tuesday as he listened to Echo Park residents tell the Los Angeles City Council why a housing program for the mentally ill should not be allowed in their neighborhood. More than 8,000 people signed petitions saying the 33-room residential hotel project would be bad not only for Echo Park, but the mentally ill it would serve.

In the end, though, Clark was smiling. The council, as expected, approved the low-interest $360,000 loan from the Community Redevelopment Agency to the Los Angeles Men's Place (LAMP), the Skid Row-based mental health agency that helped Clark set his life in order and now employs him as a staff member.

Disbelieving residents and merchants were told the LAMP program would not only be good for the mentally ill, but for Echo Park as well.

At a time when the clamor of constituents often carries the day at City Hall, the council's 11-0 decision was a virtual fait accompli. The CRA board and Councilwoman Gloria Molina, whose 1st District includes the hotel, had already voiced support for the project. Moreover, existing zoning permitted LAMP's plans to buy and refurbish the old hotel at the southwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue. LAMP's Skid Row shelter has won backing from such powers as Mayor Tom Bradley and downtown business leaders.

The debate struck the discomforting nerve of the problem of the homeless mentally ill. Like a prison or a landfill, there is wide agreement that a program like LAMP is worthwhile, but the location, it seems, is never quite right.

To politicians, it is known as the "not-in-my-backyard syndrome." But Clark and advocates for the mentally ill suggest that bigotry also plays a role.

"No one here is against the homeless or the mentally ill by any means," said Edward Herbst, owner of Gerry's Department Store. But a business district is the wrong location, Herbst said. "You wouldn't put a project like this on Rodeo Drive. Well, this is our Rodeo Drive."

Others argued that the mentally ill would become victims of the crime. "This is a red-light district . . . with a heroin and cocaine-dealing element," warned resident Mario Mejia. "What happens in the daytime is completely opposite of what happens at night . . . To me it's common sense you don't put people in this kind of community."

But LAMP supporters said the community opposition reflected common misperceptions about the mentally ill. The 8,000-plus signatures, they said, were collected by using scare tactics suggesting the hotel would be filled with degenerates and sex perverts. With proper treatment and supervision, they stressed, the mentally ill can be productive members of society.

Concern for Safety

"Every community has . . . crime problems. And we're going to make it a safer place than it is now," asserted LAMP director Mollie Lowery.

Molina, urging other council members to support such programs in their districts, emphasized that the LAMP home is a "small part" of the solution to the problem of the homeless mentally ill.

Although the idea "may be hard to understand," Molina predicted that the LAMP hotel would prove "an enhancement" for Echo Park. Molina said LAMP's "very good, structured program" would assure that the hotel's residents would be good, protective neighbors.

In an interview, Lowery said the Echo Park hotel, which will provide affordable rents and 24-hour counseling support, is the type of program needed to repair damage done by 1960s reforms that succeeded in removing the mentally ill from institutions, but failed to provide basic support for disturbed men and women who suddenly had no homes.

"This is what we should have done in the first place. Now we have new problems--worse problems--because they've been out on the streets," Lowery said.

"Shelters are great for what they do, but until we have affordable, permanent and decent housing, we're just shuffling people from shelter to shelter. And, personally, I'm tired of it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World