The duplex blends in with all the others on the residential street in Oxnard. The yard is mowed. A small American flag is taped to the front window. Inside, the rooms are clean.
Richard T. Spencer, 23, sits at the table eating a bowl of beans and rice while his roommate Kathy, 54, smokes a cigarette. Another roommate, Dolores, is running errands.
The three are among about 45 mentally ill men and women living as roommates in 15 homes for semi-independent living run by the Ventura County Department of Mental Health Services.
A caseworker meets with them weekly to discuss problems and help them run errands, but other than that they are on their own, says department spokesman Dennis O’Connell.
Neither Kathy nor Dolores works; Richard is a part-time counselor for other mentally ill people. They each pay $250 toward the rent from Social Security payments that they receive each month and they buy their own food.
The program has maintained a low profile, with only one complaint registered in the 10 years that the county has been operating the residences, officials say. Most people wouldn’t know it if they were living next door to one of the homes, they add.
The sole complaint came in January, when more than 200 Thousand Oaks residents protested a new semi-independent living home for three mentally ill men. Despite the protests, the county opened the home.
Richard and Kathy have been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics. Dolores suffers from manic depression. They are well enough to take care of themselves and their home, but they face some unusual problems.
Richard hears voices and remembers when he thought that he was Nancy Reagan. Kathy says her thought processes must be slowed down by medication so that she can handle the stresses of everyday life. October and November are a bad time of the year for Dolores, who becomes moody with the change in season.
A tape is playing on Richard’s stereo upstairs.
“Sometimes I can’t listen to the radio because the people on the radio start talking about me,” says Richard, who is reserved and always polite.
Several healthy plants sit on the counter, on the table and in the corner.
“I thought the Mafia was after me,” Kathy says. “I thought the Catholic Church was after me.”
Noisy children are playing on the sidewalk out front, and Richard shuts the window.
“I can’t live in Ventura because everybody over there is talking about me,” he says, scraping the last bit of food from the bowl.
Yet, despite their problems, there is an appearance of normality to the daily routines of Richard, Dolores and Kathy.
They usually eat leftovers on Wednesday, and after dinner they watch television--basketball, if there’s a game on.
Dolores reads Danielle Steele novels. “She’s my favorite author,” Dolores says. She also bakes cookies and cakes.
Richard teases Kathy about her marathon phone calls to her boyfriend, another county mental health patient living semi-independently in Port Hueneme.
“We talk on the phone quite a bit,” Kathy laughs.
The three roommates have worked out a schedule for themselves, leaving the house weekday mornings about 8:30 or 9 and returning home by midafternoon. They take turns with the housework and the cooking. And they don’t go into each other’s rooms without asking, Richard says.
They agreed to the rules, given to them by their caseworker, Martha Hughes, when they moved in last June.
“I’m real tough,” Hughes says. “They have to keep things clean. I think it makes them real happy too, that their house is kept clean.
“They have to be able to monitor their own medication, and they have to be able to do some kind of cooking,” Hughes says. “They have to be able to live with other people. They have to participate three days per week in some kind of structured program. That could be working, it could be volunteer.”
Those who cannot cope in a relatively unsupervised setting are sometimes moved back into board-and-care homes, where they receive around-the-clock supervision, Hughes says.
Hughes adds that the roommates find her visits reassuring. They know they have “somebody that’s going to come out if something goes wrong in the house.”
“If the washer goes out, they call me and I come out and get it fixed. They know they don’t have to worry about getting to the store, because I’m going to take them.”
For three people who know what it’s like to be locked up in a mental ward, this suburban house and lifestyle are like heaven.
Richard takes a cigarette from Kathy’s pack and slides a dime across the table in payment. He is trying to quit smoking, so he hasn’t bought any cigarettes. House rules don’t allow roommates to borrow from each other.
“This isn’t borrowing, it’s trading,” he says.
Richard, Kathy and Dolores have worked their way up from mental breakdown through a long recovery process. This house is the last stop before complete independence.
“We get to decorate our rooms the way we want to,” Kathy says.
Hers is scattered with pictures of her children and grandchildren, and one of her and her boyfriend. The bed is neatly made, with a doll given to her by her daughter-in-law resting against the pillows.
When they’re not at home, Kathy, Dolores and Richard can usually be found at a nearby park at the Turning Point socialization center, an informal day-care facility used by the county mental health department.
Dolores, who was a waitress for 30 years beginning at age 16, often helps set the table and plan the weekly menu at the center, which is operated out of a small clubhouse building in the park weekday mornings and Saturday afternoons.
A graduate of Hollywood High School, Dolores became ill in 1989 and was placed in Ventura County Hospital for three weeks. From there she moved into a board-and-care home for about a year. Then she moved into the Oxnard duplex with Kathy and Richard.
Kathy, a smiling, energetic talker, briefly attended the University of Illinois, then married at 19. She and her husband divorced, and she says she spent years trying to put the marriage together again. She eventually gave up and moved to California in 1970.
“I was very sick at the time,” she says. “They stuck me in Camarillo State Hospital. I haven’t been back, thank goodness.”
Richard, who was a student at Louisiana State University before he became ill three years ago, is one of three mental health clients who are staff members at Turning Point.
“I monitor people, see if I can refer them to help,” he says.
Some of them hear voices talking to them inside their heads. He reassures people “not to contemplate or worry about something being said to them that isn’t real.”
Richard, who is Japanese, was adopted by a white family and moved from Japan to the United States at age 3. He was close to receiving a degree in chemical engineering when he became ill.
He hopes to go to junior college in the fall and study physical therapy. “I don’t want to be an engineer,” he says.
The three seem cautiously optimistic about the future. “This is one of the steps of recovery,” Richard says.
In fact, their living arrangement is only one step from a life free of supervision. And it’s a big contrast to the depressing conditions facing almost 2,000 other people being funneled through the county mental health system.
The mental health department “doesn’t have the luxury of having a shelter,” says coordinator Vikki Smith. “There are shelters around, but those who are mentally ill don’t fit into the family shelters,” she says.
Instead, the county contracts with 30 hotels and motels to give the homeless mentally ill a roof over their heads until they can find a better place to live or get into treatment. Most of them are not places where middle-class vacationers would want to stay.
According to Randy Feltman, director of the Department of Mental Health Services, one reason that mentally ill people “fail in the community and end up in the hospital” is a lack of affordable housing.
In semi-independent living homes, “they can have decent, safe housing in lieu of what they could otherwise get on $637 per month,” he says, referring to Social Security payments given to mentally ill people living on their own.
“The alternative for a lot of these persons is hospitalization, homelessness and jail,” Feltman says.
The mental health department estimates that up to 7,000 adults, or 1% of the county’s population, suffer from mental illness. Between 2,000 and 3,000 of those are treated by the department, Feltman says.
This year the county plans to add nine semi-independent living homes, bringing the total to 24, Feltman says. One reason the county is expanding its program is that it costs less than other programs, he adds.
But not just any mental health client can get into an independent living home, officials stress.
“We screen these people. All the people in independent living have been in some kind of program,” says Hughes. She says caseworkers have monitored all of the semi-independent residents for six months to a year.
Anyone living in a semi-independent home can also be sent back to a board-and-care facility, which has more supervision, Hughes says. She has moved people out of, and back into, semi-independent homes.
Hughes can tell during her weekly meetings with Richard, Kathy and Dolores, and with the residents of the other home she manages, how they are progressing.
“If they’re doing well, they’re going to take their medication,” she says. “If they’re eating right and cleaning for themselves, those are usually the signs.”
Richard recalls a time when he heard thousands of voices talking to him, day and night. They sounded just as if they were in the next room.
“You’re afraid to open the door,” he says. Now the roar of voices is dying down. “I can handle one or two.
“I used to try to just pick up and walk off to the desert,” he says.
He doesn’t try that anymore. He has settled for the one-mile walk to the park every morning.