New Home Promises Stability to Mentally Ill

Times Staff Writer

Mary's 27-year-old son has been trapped for most of his adult life in a cycle of hospitalization in mental institutions and eviction from board-and-care homes because of his disruptive behavior.

He suffers from both schizophrenia and manic depression, which have made him difficult to handle, even for his own family.

"It sounds horrible, but one time I got him blankets to sleep on the streets," said Mary, who asked that her full name be withheld.

But with the opening of a new home for the chronically mentally ill in Pasadena this month, she hopes the cycle will be broken, and her son will find a home for life.

The residence is the creation of California Living Homes, a nonprofit group spearheaded by parents and social service advocates long frustrated by the lack of secure, permanent housing for the mentally ill.

The organization's goal: To break patterns of frustration, rejection and defeat experienced by those who have been shuttled back and forth between treatment facilities and temporary living quarters.

Unlike many board-and-care facilities, which often cannot afford to leave a bed vacant for more than a few weeks, the home promises to hold spaces for at least three months if residents suffer a relapse and have to be hospitalized.

'Afraid to Die'

"Many parents are basically afraid to die because they realize the possibility that their sons or daughters will become homeless," said Carol Liess, executive director of California Living Homes.

She said that because the group consists largely of families of the mentally ill, the organization intends to handle residents' unpredictable behavior with more tolerance than usual.

"If they break rules we'll do everything possible to help them work the problem out, because we're parents and we know what's not (available) out there," she said.

Applicants must be from Pasadena, 18 or older and free of drug abuse or alcoholism for at least six months. The home will accept men and women, whose care will be paid for by the $600 in monthly Supplemental Security Income they receive from the state.

The 2-year-old organization plans for the six-bed home to be the first of up to 50 to be established in the county for the chronically mentally ill.

California Living Homes acquired the property a year ago with the help of a $40,000 Community Development Block Grant from the city and $160,000 from the state Housing and Community Development Department.

Pacific Clinics, the largest county-contracted provider of mental health services in the San Gabriel Valley, will train the home's staff, while the county Mental Health Department will help develop activities for residents.

House parents, ideally a husband and wife, will manage the household. Policies such as sharing chores and free access to the kitchen will emphasize a family-like atmosphere.

Countywide Conference

The concept of California Living Homes was born three years ago at a countywide conference sponsored by mental health advocates that focused on the need for long-term housing.

According to California Living Homes, a major cause of the housing crisis for the mentally ill was the deinstitutionalization of mental health care in the late 1960s.

At that time, state legislation transferred much of the responsibility for mental health patients from state hospitals to local communities. All but the most severely ill patients were ordered released.

But the communities did not have the resources to handle the influx, said Martin Meizner, housing chairman of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an advocacy and support group.

"If the state had given monies to build decent community facilities, homes would have been developed," said Meizner, a California Living Homes board member. "The money never came."

Board-and-care facilities became a major source of housing for the mentally ill, said Verda Bradley, board-and-care coordinator for the county Mental Health Department.

The board-and-care homes, which range from houses in residential neighborhoods to large facilities for more than 50 residents, offer the residents food, activities and some supervision.

'No Guarantee'

But the longest the 160 county-contracted homes will hold a space for a resident who goes into the hospital is two weeks, she said.

"One bad (psychotic) episode and you might get kicked out," said Mary Rainwater, assistant coordinator of the department's homeless unit. "There is no guarantee that after you go into the hospital the rooms are going to be there when you get back. It's not your home."

The county also provided housing for the mentally ill, but only for short periods during crises, said Fran Griffith, coordinator of the Mental Health Department's homeless unit.

The housing problem not only put many of the mentally ill on the street but also aggravated their condition, Rainwater said.

Today, about 30% of the county's 25,000 to 50,000 homeless are mentally ill, she said.

"(California Living Homes) is talking permanent housing, and that's a new concept for the mentally ill in this county," she said.

Parents' Support

Rainwater said California Living Homes, which has a mailing list of 800, is unique because it is supported primarily by parents of the mentally ill.

California Living Homes Executive Director Liess left her accounting job to care for a 23-year-old schizophrenic son at home. He suffered his first breakdown while he was a high school freshman.

"There is a lot of stress when your home is regulated by someone you love dearly, yet you realize they need their own environment," she said. "You have to restructure your life.

"I've heard horror stories about kids being bounced around in the mental health system and on the streets," she said, explaining why she has worked two years without pay as California Living Homes's only full-time employee. "A lot of (parents) come to us and say we're the first glimmer of hope they've had."

"Many people have said it would be great if we had such a place, but most felt it would be impossible because of the lack of funding and expertise," said Sara Shatford, former president of the San Gabriel Valley Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

The home plans to foster fellowship among residents so that they feel like part of a family, Liess said. For instance, if a resident has to be hospitalized, house mates would be encouraged to visit the patient for moral support.

Activities such as recreational therapy and social skills programs will be provided. Residents will be expected to do their share of housekeeping and help with meal preparation.

"Once they have a family environment and support, they become very workable," Liess said. "Given residential stability, they just become more peaceful."

She is now negotiating the acquisition of another home in Highland Park.

Regina De Jernette, coordinator for a Pacific Clinics homeless program, says the Pasadena home will be filled "in the blink of an eye." Forty individuals are already on a waiting list.

With the comradeship of steady house mates, "it would be like receiving group therapy day in and day out, instead of just once or twice a week," she said. "These people need the connection and support."

She cited a homeless schizophrenic she has referred to California Living Homes. He was devastated after he was rejected by relatives when he went home for Thanksgiving, and has regressed. "He needs a family," she said.

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