Middle Ground : Private Housing Gives Former Mental Patients a Place to Call Home


Working without accolades, a special housing corporation has been able to put a dent in the number of mentally ill people on the streets of Southern California.

A Community of Friends, a nonprofit organization, has blended creative real estate and financial wrangling with help from the county's social service agencies to build low-income apartments for more than 300 men and women trying to rebuild lives after depression, addictions or other mental illnesses.

Convinced that county mental health services too often stop at treatment, leaving former patients to fend for themselves while they seek jobs and housing, A Community of Friends brings together counseling, independent living and an emphasis on the work ethic.

The group buys decaying old buildings such as the Selby Hotel in Hollywood and refurbishes or renovates them at a low cost, using money from federal loans, the private sector and old-fashioned hustling, said the program's executive director, Robert Sanborn. It then rents the units to recovering mental patients, some of whom might be unable to make the transition on their own.

The philosophy is part of a fragmented national effort to get homeless people off the street by combining treatment with housing.

"You can see the savings for society in what we do," Sanborn said. "Hospital time is the most costly service and people don't want to be tied up there all the time. The time and money that we invest now will come back to us in 10 years."

Mental health caseworkers have long been squeezed by the problem of finding a way to help their patients ease back into normal functioning once they have regained some confidence after a bout with depression or schizophrenia. Too often, services from the county stop at initial and intermediate treatment, leaving the patients to fend for themselves as they seek jobs and housing.

It was that void that Tanya Tull was trying to fill when she founded A Community of Friends in 1988. The first project was the Orbison House, a four-unit apartment building with a sprawling five-bedroom house in front of it. Money for the project was raised by singer Roy Orbison's widow, Barbara.

Now the agency has finished six projects, including the recently opened, $3.7-million Berendo Apartments in Koreatown, with 48 brightly colored studio units. The cycle of helping patients progress continues here. A former resident of the Selby, Dennis Bullock, manages the building. The program is also developing projects in South-Central Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego.

Residents at the apartments continue counseling with case managers in local service agencies. The buildings (constructed, Sanborn is quick to point out, with marble tabletops and skylights) promote a sense of community. Meeting rooms and kitchens on each floor provide areas for smoking, sharing coffee, cooking breakfast or just chatting.

Once residents have applied and been awarded a slot at an apartment, some residents get part-time jobs or, like Bullock, work at the buildings as managers or doing maintenance. Rent is 30% of whatever income the resident makes, whether through government aid or jobs.

At the Selby, residents scamper through the halls while caseworkers converse with people in the counseling office. Resident Marcel Haddad usually sits listening to his stereo or flipping through magazines. Haddad, who once worked as an electrical engineer, is recovering from schizophrenia. Although he does not feel comfortable with too many people around, Haddad heads out every couple of days to the streets of Hollywood to get some food or cigarettes. The converted Parker Hotel, which opened in September in the Pico-Union district, has 32 restored units. Its hallways, including a purple "Lakers" floor, give residents a distinctive feel of home. Several units in the building are reserved for patients with AIDS or the HIV virus.

For 45-year-old Weldon E. Young, an articulate man whose bright eyes grab and poke at visitors through his glasses, picking up the pieces meant having a permanent place to begin his life anew.

Young was a Los Angeles school district teacher before drug and alcohol abuse led him to addiction and depression. After leaving a rehabilitation program sponsored by USC early last year, Young came to the Parker. He says his new home has been great.

"What it's helped me to do is get my stability and rhythm back," Young said after taking a sip of coffee.

"I'm looking forward to getting back out there," he said. "I would like to become a minister to tell people that you can get your life back, no matter what happens to you."

One barrier A Community of Friends faces is a resistence by neighborhoods to the presence of people such as Haddad and Weldon.

Officials say they consult with neighbors about their new projects, trying to ease fears of rising crime or ambulances coming for patients.

The group's founder, Tull, has gone on to run another advocate agency for the homeless. Sanborn, who has a master's degree in city planning from MIT, handles fund raising and scouts building sites. Craig Fenner, director of residential services, is the group's middle man, responsible for maintaining a rapport with residents and using his clinical training to assist them in dealing with everything from leaky toilets to family woes.

Sanborn said the increase in the homeless population merits the emphasis on building specialized housing. With more than 30% of the about 25,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County suffering from some type of mental illness, the group's role has became even more important.

"The issue of homelessness is not bounded by any particular neigborhood," Sanborn said.

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