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Bay Area dream of a haven for those with mental illness is mired in chaos

Contra Costa dream of haven for mentally ill is mired in chaos
Valerie Meredith, whose son was mentally ill, helped organize the effort to develop a farm in Contra Costa County for adults suffering from severe mental illness.
(Maura Dolan / Los Angeles Times)

Except for a lone caretaker and a goat that greets visitors in the driveway, this 10-acre Contra Costa farm sits empty, a symbol of unfulfilled dreams and promises.

Modeled after successful mental health programs around the nation, “the farm” was envisioned as a quiet place where clients with such conditions as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression could heal.

Now the project’s future is uncertain, a victim of stigma, a budget conflict and a lack of will.

Gloria Hill, a former family advocate for the county’s mental health system, conceived the project.

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She was quickly joined by Valerie Meredith, who, like Hill, was active in the Contra Costa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an educational and advocacy group.

Meredith had gone to the group for help when her son became ill in his senior year of college. He jumped to his death two years later.

“I didn’t want what happened to us to happen to other families,” she said, seated at her kitchen counter in Lafayette, a small upscale community in Contra Costa.

The two began rounding up support for their project and found no shortage of people with siblings, children or spouses whose lives had been disrupted by mental illness.

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“It began with family members trying to save our children and trying to work with the system,” said Teresa Pasquini, who served nine years on the county’s Mental Health Commission and whose adult son suffers from schizoaffective disorder, the same illness that afflicts her brother.

“We thought, OK, we don’t have housing. Let’s get some housing. This was a community dream,” she said.

Hill and Meredith quickly discovered that the county had few places where adults with severe mental illness could live, a problem in communities nationwide. As a result, many families had little choice but to move sick loved ones into grim board and care homes with untrained staff.

Working with other community members, the women started a nonprofit and raised more than $600,000, in part from Contra Costa families with members suffering from psychiatric disabilities.

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The idea was to establish housing both for people who needed only short-term care as well as the more seriously disabled who required a long-term, structured setting.

A developer and his wife purchased the land for the farm in Knightsen, a small, unincorporated community where there are nearly as many horses as people and where roadside stands advertise raw honey and organic produce. The land came with water rights, and the purchase price in 2008 was nearly $1 million.

In 2007, Bonita House, a nonprofit that provides housing and mental health treatment in neighboring Alameda County, agreed to develop and run the farm. The organization has a successful and long history of treating and housing people with psychiatric illnesses and addiction.

The backers of the project turned over the money and land, expecting Bonita House to open the farm quickly. But the project ran into opposition that they blamed on the stigma of mental illness that led to the advent of prison-like “madhouses” and “lunatic asylums.”

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Some Knightsen residents worried that property values would plummet. Unmoved by assurances that Bonita House did criminal background checks on clients and did not accept sex offenders, they urged the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors to refuse to issue the permits needed to open the farm.

“In our 40 years, we have never had a neighbor injured by one of our residents,” Rick Crispino, then-executive director of Bonita House, was quoted as saying during a hearing on the permit application. “We bend over backward, on all of our properties, to be a good neighbor.”

Hill, who has since moved to Florida to find good, supportive housing for a mentally ill family member, said she always believed the Knightsen community would come to favor the project once the land was improved and people recognized that the clients were not a threat.

In the meantime, with armies of Contra Costa County family members backing the farm, county supervisors finally awarded a permit in 2011, but added several restrictions that increased the cost. The permit was for 10 beds, but supporters hoped more could be added later.

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Backers began trying to raise more money.

Lauren Rettagliata, chair of the county’s Mental Health Commission, and others spent the last year working to obtain federal funds. Unpaid, the women spent months writing and rewriting proposals and attending meetings. It seemed to pay off.

The county awarded Bonita House $707,000 in May to rehabilitate and expand the house on the farmland. The money was a no-interest loan that would not have to be repaid as long as the project continued for 30 years, Rettagliata said.

The county chapter of the mental health alliance celebrated, announcing the new funding in a May newsletter article titled, “A Dream Closer to Reality.”

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“It is expected that work may begin as early as July,” the newsletter said.

Then, without warning, Bonita House announced it would decline the money.

Now, more than a decade after the fundraising started and years after the land was bought, acres of grapevines have withered and died. A bass boat that was donated so clients could go fishing on the nearby delta sits under a shredded tarp. The one-story farmhouse looks out on fields of dead brown grass.

In an August 24 letter, Bonita’s directors said they were concerned there would be too little money to run the program.

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Rettagliata, whose own mentally ill son had been homeless for years, said she had worked closely with Bonita House in lobbying for the money and doesn’t understand the about-face. She said the organization has stopped returning her calls.

The money is now lost, she said. The alliance would have to reapply for it in the future.

Hill, reeling from Bonita House’s decision, contacted Christopher Zubiate, who has developed and run well-regarded housing and programs for the mentally ill in Northern California. Zubiate examined the financial papers and contracts for the farm. He argued there was plenty of money to develop and run it.

At the proponents’ urging, he is meeting with county mental health officials to try to take over the project and persuade Bonita House to return the money and land. The couple who donated the 10.4 acres also has asked Bonita House to transfer the property.

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“I don’t see how, in good conscience, you can take something from people, promise to do something for 10 years, and then say, ‘I can’t do it, thank you very much,’” Zubiate said. “Just do it. Do it. And if you are not going to do it, give it back.”

Lorna Jones, who became Bonita House’s executive director a year ago, declined to discuss the group’s plans for the property, which had been donated with few strings attached.

“These things take time,” Jones said. “We are dealing with a set of circumstances that unfortunately can’t be resolved overnight.”

Bonita House released a statement Friday that said it had fulfilled its promises by working on the project for many years and would continue “to evaluate options and develop a plan for the property.”

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Marlene Weiss, an early proponent of the farm, was stunned when she learned of the recent developments.

Her mentally ill son had been forced to live in “horrible” board and care homes in the county until he was well enough to move in with her, she said. He died at age 39 of a heart attack.

“I remember all the work and all the hope and the dreams and the promises from Bonita House that this was going to be a go,” she said. “It is still a beautiful idea.”

maura.dolan@latimes.com
Twitter: @mauradolan

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