RESIDENTS PROTEST HOME FOR MENTALLY ILL
June 17, 2002 11:00 pm

By BILL LUNDQUIST

GOLD BEACH – Angry residents packed the Commissioners' Hearing Room Monday to try to stop plans to site a treatment home for the mentally ill in their neighborhood.

The Curry County commissioners approved a lease two weeks ago for the five bedroom home located at 30376 Driftwood Drive in the Rogue Hills subdivision.

According to an information sheet issued Monday by the Curry County Human Services Department, "Driftwood Home is a residential treatment home that will have a five bed capacity serving the severely and persistently mentally ill.

"Four of these beds will have long-term residents that are not a danger to self or others.

"The fifth bed is a transitional bed that will be used for short term uses. Driftwood Home will be fully staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Rogue Hills neighbors spent about an hour and a half presenting the commissioners with petitions and 19 concerns they had about siting such a facility among several childcare centers.

They also expressed anger that Human Services had worked for years to create the facility, but had no intention of informing those living around it.

A neighbor learned of the plans a few weeks ago. The home is slated to open for clients around the middle of July or the first of August.

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of the Human Services Department and Commissioner Rachelle Schaaf, liaison to the department.

Commissioners Lucie La Bont and Marlyn Schafer said they had little knowledge of the facility or possible alternatives.

The commissioners directed Human Services to hold a meeting with the neighbors soon and explain the exact nature of the facility.

They also directed Human Services to check into a possible alternative site. They directed County Counsel Jerry Herbage to look at the lease and see what the county has committed to so far.

Childcare provider Liza Castleberry presented the commissioners with signatures from 17 petitions that had been circulated throughout the subdivision.

She thanked Human Services Business Manager Cynthia Smith for speaking with her, but said the conversation did not satisfy all her concerns.

She said while Smith said there would be no sexual predators or violent patients at the home, the neighbors would not have the right to know or verify the backgrounds of the patients.

Castleberry said Smith indicated that Human Services might not have the right to know those facts.

She said Smith also indicated that the one transitional bed in the home would be used for a mentally ill person in crisis.

"They would be sending into our community someone who is freaking out," said Castleberry, reminding people that the home is located between two childcare centers. She said there is a large concentration of children in the Rogue Hills subdivision.

She was also concerned that state funds were used to remodel the home, and that the state will pay $825 a month to rent the home, which she said is far above neighborhood values.

Another neighbor, Ellie Vaughn, said to Schaaf, "Human Services said you worked with them at great length."

She also said she heard that another house in Gold Beach had previously been remodeled, using state funds, for the same purpose, but had never been used.

Schaaf said the treatment home is located only two doors from the Human Services building.

She was not familiar with the other house, or if it was considered.

Vaughn said the chosen site is not in the city limits or under city police protection. She said the "overworked, understaffed" Sheriff's Office is not always able to respond.

"Was that taken into consideration?" she asked.

Schaaf said it was. She said County Council Jerry Herbage was also consulted about the facility.

Herbage explained that no one wanted such facilities in their neighborhoods, so the state Legislature made them an outright use in residential zones. No conditional use permits or public notice were required.

"I'm asking that you do a more in-depth study on our concerns," said Vaughn.

She said there are 90 children in the neighborhood, and most of them play right in front of the treatment home.

Vaughn said she runs a childcare center right next to the home, and the Head Start center is also close.

"I'm asking and begging that you put more thought into this," she said.

Schaaf said, "Rest assured that your concerns are not falling on deaf ears."

"I was unaware of the concerns," said La Bont. "Is the contract binding?"

Herbage said the lease had been signed, but that he could look at it. He reminded the commissioners that they couldn't address all the concerns that day, but were there to hear them.

Another neighbor said, "What if a resident goes on the loose end and we want assistance right now? How do we get it?"

She said emergency response time has been slow to the neighborhood.

"They might escape and we'd never know anything about it for some time," she said. "Children playing on the street are entitled to security."

One neighbor, a registered nurse, had worked in a psychiatric hospital. "Some patients are docile, some terrifying, some unmanageable," she said. "I never felt completely in control of the residents."

She was concerned about the training of the home's staff. "They need to be trained, licensed psychiatric technicians," she said, "and they cost. It's not a $7.50 an hour job."

She said the home would need bars and grills on the windows, and strong locks.

She also questioned bringing the mentally ill out to such an isolated area, given that the stated goal was to teach them life skills.

Amy Young asked, "When did you and Human Services decide on this location? When did you begin working on it?"

Smith said she found out in February that the home would be vacant.

"When did you decide to take concerns from residents?" she asked.

Young noted that the home would have been occupied before neighbors could do anything about it.

"When will you discuss putting it on hold?" she said.

"We're taking concerns at this time," said Schaaf. "Certain issues will be taken into consideration."

"Who was assigned to find out what the neighbors felt?" said Young.

"Human Services is responsible for the project," said Schaaf. "I take responsibility as liaison."

"Would you be opposed to having it next to you?" said Young.

"The facility is staffed 24 hours a day," said Schaaf. "It is next door to Human Services. I personally wouldn't have a problem with it. I believe in the Human Services staff. There are numerous safeguards and rules. "

"When the institutions were closed," said Schaaf, "the state told communities to take care of their own mentally ill." She said some of the patients would be from Curry County.

Young questioned that.

Herbage said the "citizens' concerns" portion of the meeting did not obligate the commissioners to submit to a "cross-examination."

Schaaf agreed to hear from three more citizens. La Bont wanted to hear from everyone who wanted to speak.

In the end, the commissioners listened to more than a dozen more neighbors, including a county department head.

Some said they had enjoyed working with the handicapped or developmentally disabled, but that the home would have a different kind of patient.

Some neighbors were concerned about property values. Some were concerned the home would not be able to serve its patients well.

"My number one concern," said one neighbor, "is the lack of respect shown us as responsible citizens. We should have had a much larger role in the decision."

"Disrespect was not intended," said Schaaf.

Castleberry asked the commissioners to look at other sites. She said there are already mental health facilities near the Gold Beach airport. She also suggested Brookings.

Near the end of the meeting, the commissioners called on Smith and Human Services Community Support Manager Mitch King to address some of the issues raised.

Smith said some patients would come from the state hospital, but most from other foster homes, and some from Curry County.

She said patients who were a threat to themselves or others would not be allowed in the home.

She said if patients refused their medications, they would be taken out of the home.

Smith said she told Castleberry she couldn't guarantee the treatment home, or any other home in the neighborhood, wouldn't cause any problems.

King said the fifth bed would be used for people coming out of the hospital who weren't quite ready to go home.

"We don't know who is coming," he said. "The cases meet state approval and ours."

He said supervision might not be needed at all times, but it would be provided to give the home extra security.

King said the home would not be a "lock-down" facility. He said patients would be transported into the city and MINDS Clubhouse daily for life-skills training.

"There hasn't been enough time for understanding," he said of the neighbors' fears.

"I resent being told I'm reacting because I'm scared," said Castleberry. "I'm concerned for the children."

"What you're doing is admirable," she said, "but not in this subdivision, not in the wrong place."

Schafer said she had believed the home would be for the developmentally disabled.

Schaaf asked King what attracted him to this particular house.

He said four and five-bedroom homes with nice common areas are hard to rent in Curry County.

He said it would also be better to have the home near the mental health staff. He said when mentally ill residents come back to Gold Beach now, there is no supervised place to take them.

Smith said the project will probably lose funding if the home is not opened, throwing three years of work down the drain.

"It would have looked like any other residential home," she said.

She said the residents shouldn't have known what kind of facility was going in. She believed the knowledge caused the fears.

La Bont said, "My way of addressing fears is to sit down and talk with others."

Schafer asked Human Services to quickly schedule a less structured meeting where the neighbors could talk back and forth with staff. She said it might help if Human Services could bring down someone from the state.

"I understand the fears and concerns of the neighborhood," she said.

"I feel we should put this on hold until that meeting," said La Bont. Schafer agreed.