Los Angeles County officials are seeking to shut down an allegedly illegal boardinghouse in Lennox, where they say mental patients -- often recruited from skid row or dropped off by hospitals -- have been housed in cramped and filthy quarters and subjected, in at least one recent case, to physical abuse.
Last month, a night manager at Serenity House allegedly struck a resident on the head three times with a hammer, according to a Jan. 9 report by the county Department of Mental Health's patients rights office. The victim was treated at a hospital for cuts to his scalp and returned to the facility, the resident and another facility manager said.
Mental health officials, who have visited the five-unit apartment complex several times with other authorities in recent weeks, found as many as 10 beds crammed into two-bedroom apartments, where residents slept on dirty linens and wore soiled clothes, according to their report. As many as 45 people have lived in the complex at a time, officials said. Residents said most of them pay $550 a month from their federal Supplemental Security Income checks.
Inspectors cited numerous other violations of the county health and safety code, including cockroach and maggot infestations; flies around open, overflowing dumpsters, missing smoke detectors and leaky plumbing.
"We found the conditions were appalling, and we believe that action needed to be taken as quickly as possible to remove people from that setting," said Marvin J. Southard, director of the county Department of Mental Health.
Some residents have been relocated.
The department is seeking not just to shut Serenity House, which they say is operating illegally as an unlicensed board-and-care facility, but to investigate psychiatric hospitals that have deposited mental patients there, Southard said.
The people who lease and run Serenity House defended their operation, saying that the home is a "sober-living facility," not a board-and-care, and so does not require a license from the state Department of Social Services.
Willie Hinton, his ex-wife Denise P. Hinton and Donald Blake said the facility provides a home- and family-like atmosphere for people who otherwise probably would be sleeping on skid row.
"Our mission is to help people recover," Denise Hinton said. We "give them a place to live."
She acknowledged that the apartments weren't always clean.
"That's day-to-day living," she said. "A lot of people came from cardboard houses; it's going to be dirty inside some of them."
Of residents, she said: "They're like babies. We're helping them relearn basic life skills," like etiquette and eating.
Southard contested the contention that the facility helps rehabilitate people, speculating that some residents prefer to live there because they are able to use drugs and alcohol freely. During a recent visit, a reporter saw a resident drinking from a vodka bottle.
County officials said the case underscored their concerns about substandard, unlicensed board-and-care homes, which do not fall clearly within the jurisdiction of any regulatory agency and which no one has clear authority to shut down. Southard said the county might be able to close Serenity House based on code violations.
Operators, who cater primarily to the homeless, sometimes are more interested in collecting disability checks than rehabilitating the mentally ill, critics say. But the facilities fill a niche, providing housing for a group that often has few legitimate options, and they often come to officials' attention only when someone calls in a tip or a resident is harmed.
"They say, if you've got SSI, I've got a place for you to sleep tonight," said Ruth Hollman, who leads a nonprofit and has helped the mentally ill find housing. "The choice was basically sleep on skid row, get mugged ... or have a bed to sleep in."
The problem has persisted for years. About a decade ago, a Times investigation found that board-and-care operators were picking up destitute and disabled people from skid row, taking their disability checks and placing them in decaying houses.
In 2002, at least five mentally ill residents of an unlicensed boardinghouse in the San Gabriel Valley died, three of them from morphine overdoses.
After the deaths, the county developed a multi-agency task force to increase monitoring of such facilities, licensed or not, with the aim of reducing abuse and neglect.
"It's getting to be a bigger and bigger problem," said Barbara Leifer, a patient-rights advocate at the county Department of Mental Health.
Residents of Serenity House told authorities a familiar story: They were recruited from skid row in downtown Los Angeles by promises of good food and conditions, or improperly dropped off by local psychiatric hospitals.
According to the Jan. 9 county report, the hospitals included City of Angels Medical Center-Ingleside in Rosemead and Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center in Hawthorne. Both facilities had received warnings from the county in 2002 after they referred patients to the unlicensed boardinghouse where the five deaths occurred. City of Angels was temporarily stripped of its ability to detain and treat mentally ill patients, officials said.
Contacted recently about Serenity House, both hospitals said it was not their policy to discharge patients who needed care and supervision to unlicensed facilities, but patients sometimes chose to live in these homes and the hospitals could not stop them.
Some residents who were dropped off at Serenity House said they were appalled by the home's conditions.
James Patrick Lurch said he was taken to Serenity House about four months ago by an ambulance from a mental health facility whose name he could not recall. He saw immediately that neither his kitchen nor bathroom sink had running water.
The carpet was encrusted with dirt, and the kitchen had neither a stove nor refrigerator, he said. The cupboards were bare except for cleaning fluid and a rusted toaster oven. Coffee filters were used as toilet paper.
"It's so dirty around here," said Lurch, 47. "It's like the bottom of a barrel."
But, he said, "it was either here or the street."
Lurch was transported to a psychiatric facility late Friday after he told county inspectors that he felt suicidal.
Joseph Ruiz, a 53-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia, said he immediately packed his bags last month when county officials said they could find him somewhere else to live.
"I was praying to God to get me out of this place," he said.
Other residents, even the one allegedly assaulted by the night manager, were disinclined to complain.
Marvin Simmons said he was struck by the manager after he took laundry detergent without permission.
"I felt like I needed it. He responded by hitting me in the head with a hammer," said Simmons, who had been living on skid row and was referred to Serenity House by a friend.
But Simmons said he and the manager remained friends, and called the incident a "misunderstanding." He said he had declined to press charges.
The manager, who could not be reached for comment, stepped down from his position but still lives at the facility, another manager said.
Patrice Page, 38, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, said Serenity House has been a good home for her. She proudly pointed to her kitchen, complete with a refrigerator and a hotplate.
"For me, I don't have nobody," Page said Friday. "These people lift me up."