Hard choices ahead
for Honor Farm
By Kelly Feser Eells
As thousands of county residents
know, trying to find affordable housing is like trying to find
the holy grail.
But trying to find housing, any housing, affordable or otherwise,
for the mentally ill? That's like trying to find the holy grail
And the problem isn't exclusive to Ventura County, either. According
to the California Mental Health Planning Council, it's a statewide
crisis - and it has been for some time.
In January of 2001, the CMHPC, prompted by public concern about
the "serious shortage of acute care beds in California,"
launched a study of what it then called a housing "problem."
By 2002, the agency, a branch of the Department of Mental Health,
was reporting ever-decreasing numbers of all forms of housing
for the mentally ill (transitional, supportive group homes, etc.)
and shifted its focus from fact-gathering to solution-finding.
Not surprisingly, money, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest
contributing factors; there is little-to-no federal reimbursement
for hospitals operating as "institutions of mental disease,"
as evidenced by the 1997 closure of Camarillo State Hospital.
Other contributing factors include the growing numbers of "hard-to-place"
people, i.e., people with dual diagnoses, like the substance-abusing
mentally ill, or people with more than one medical issue, and
communities' reluctance to support such facilities, what the
CMHPC- interestingly enough - calls "NIMBYism."
Although the study cited Camarillo's Las Posadas residential
treatment center (a public-private partnership between Ventura
County Behavioral Health Services, the Area Housing Authority
of Ventura County and the Telecare Corporation) as an example
of a "model community program," Supervisor Steve Bennett
knows NIMBYism all too well.
Last June, after he and Supervisor Linda Parks initiated a feasibility
study about converting the Ojai Honor Farm into housing for the
mentally ill, he has been at the center of what's become a political
and social firestorm.
And despite his efforts to keep the public informed about the
ongoing county study, he has been (most would agree, unfairly)
accused of being less-than-forthcoming.
This was never as apparent as it was Oct. 2, during the fourth
public meeting about the feasibility study - and the second one
called by Bennett himself.
Held at the Oak View Community Center before another standing-room-only
crowd, the meeting drew the usual contingent of opponents and
supporters - with opponents again outnumbering supporters four
Though it was the first public meeting she'd attended, Mira Monte
resident Kathy Walker has been following the issue since it first
came to the fore, and closely, at that. (She was quoted last
July as saying, "With respect to Supervisor Bennett's recent
proposal, I wholeheartedly agree that the county, indeed the
state - thank you, Proposition 13! - has a severe shortage of
all lockdown facilities.
But, while Mira Monte residents
reside outside the city limits, we still attend Ojai schools,
have Ojai addresses, and carry out our lives in Ojai; we don't,
however, enjoy the same safe haven restrictions enjoyed by the
residents of the city of Ojai. The quaintness of Mira Monte has
already been challenged by the arrival of Rite-Aid, McDonald's
and Taco Bell. Adding insult to injury would be the addition
of a mental health facility. I agree that there is a shortage
... but is the solution the Honor Farm? If we're really talking
about utilizing unused facilities in the area, how about the
old bowling alley? Although I doubt the East End residents would
support that option.")
Three months later, Walker indicated she was more displeased
with the tone of the public meeting than the proposal itself.
"The rhetoric was flying," she said. "The audience
was overemotional; no one seemed to be listening to each other,
and the entire meeting seemed counterproductive."
One man, she noted, "was particularly aggressive, seeming
to actually lunge" at Bennett. "He was pointing his
finger right in his face - that doesn't serve anyone's interest."
Walker added, "After about an hour, my daughter, Chloe,
and I decided to leave."
A former Camarillo State Hospital employee, Melody Warner, voiced
her concerns about the proposal, essentially agreeing with the
Committee for Honor Farm Options (a grass-roots coalition of
local residents who have themselves been accused of "fear-mongering"
and worse), noting, "A residential neighborhood is no place
for this kind of facility."
Warner said that, even at a lock-down facility like Camarillo
State Hospital was, she and other hospital staff were sometimes
accosted by severely mentally ill patients, who can be "as
much as danger to others" as to themselves. She urged the
county to look into a more rural area, such as the Camarillo
area where Las Posadas is.
An unidentified member of the audience suggested that the recently
closed Colston Juvenile Hall, a maximum security facility in
Ventura - and across the street from the county's Department
of Mental Health - would be a much better site.
Committee for Honor Farm Options member Amy Hagen noted that
mentally ill state conservatees (who have been identified by
the county as the proposed facility's target population) "include
people who have committed violent crimes, including murder, but
cannot be tried while mentally incompetent. Under California
Penal Code 1370 (a)(1)(B)(ii), they can't be ordered to a 'secure
treatment facility' such as the one you're proposing."
Hagen also noted that "only 21 out of 58 counties have an
institute of mental disease; Ojai would be the new home to the
most severely mentally ill from many of (the other) 36 counties."
While Bennett has long maintained that a secure, i.e., locked-down,
mental health facility is the only kind he would support, he
acknowledged at the Oct. 2 meeting that the county is looking
at the Honor Farm site as an Institute of Mental Disease - where
"security" is provided by medical staff.
Bennett again emphasized the fact that "this is only in
the study phase," and that it is still too early to predict
what the study will yield.
A final report is expected by January 2004.
Bennett may be reached at 654-2703. The Committee for Honor Farm
Options may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ojai Valley News
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