LONG BEACH — It has been months since little Candis Stinson laced up her white leather roller skates and took a spin through the quiet streets of her westside neighborhood.
"Because of the crazy-man house, my daddy won't let me play outside anymore," the pigtailed 6-year-old explained. "I don't want to play outside because of those crazy men."
The object of the first-grader's fears is an innocuous stucco dwelling on Wise Avenue that houses four mentally ill adults.
Since opening in December, the halfway house has become the target of a mounting dispute, sparking charges from area residents that its tenants are potentially dangerous and are shattering the serenity of the neighborhood.
While state mental health officials defend the facility, area residents have launched a bid to get it shut down, holding meetings and circulating petitions.
"The men who live in that house march through our streets with a glazed look in their eyes," said Johnnie Stinson, 29, father of Candis and a leader of the drive. "I've seen them kissing the sidewalk and doing karate kicks in the air. I've seen them ranting and raving and running through the streets late at night. I've seen them try to climb the light poles."
Operators of the halfway house and the four men living there, however, say such allegations are unfounded and unfair, complaining that the neighbors have not given them a chance.
"It's ignorance, jealousy and a whole lot of prejudice," said Carrie Judy, operator of the home. "Nobody from this house has bothered anyone in that neighborhood."
Judy, a licensed practical nurse, has lived in her comfortable, three-bedroom house on Wise Avenue for more than two decades, raising two daughters there before opening the six-bed facility five months ago.
"People hear the words 'mentally ill' and they think you're nuts, that you're going to beat up their kids and do God knows what else," said Jerry Anderson, 32, a halfway-house tenant. "The neighbors around here don't understand what mental illness is. Because of that, they fear it."
The halfway-house residents, several of whom suffer from schizophrenia, say their stay at the facility has helped them battle mental illness.
"This is a home to me, a place where we're all like one big family," said David Quigg, 28, who came to Judy's two months ago from the state mental hospital in Norwalk. "Some of the neighbors are telling lies. They're treating us like animals, like we don't exist. We're just normal human beings trying to make it in the world."
Network of Facilities
State mental health leaders have also lined up in support of the halfway house, which is just one in a network of facilities that provide lodging and food to about 20,000 mentally ill adults in California re-adjusting to society after breakdowns or institutionalization.
"You see this type of problem in residential neighborhoods throughout the country," said Chuck Skoien, executive vice president of the California Assn. of Residential Care Homes. "Nobody wants the mentally ill to live next door. They want them down in the railroad yard."
Undeterred, scores of residents living on Wise Avenue and the other tree-lined streets near the halfway house are trying to get the facility shut down.
More than 150 residents of the largely blue-collar neighborhood, which is tucked into a nook formed by the San Diego and Long Beach freeways, gathered April 26 in the Silverado Park Community Center to air their complaints with state and local officials.
Several said they feared for the safety of their children, while others questioned why the halfway house was allowed to open without neighbors being told.
"These people are ill. They're nuts," said Willie Jackson, 63, a retired bus driver who lives two doors away from the halfway house. "They should be in a hospital, not in a neighborhood."
Those complaints have set off a temblor of controversy that has reverberated all the way to the state Capitol.
Councilwoman Eunice Sato, whose district includes the westside, told the neighbors there was nothing the city could do about the halfway house. Although Sato is sympathetic, she explained that state law prohibits cities from enacting zoning regulations or taking action against halfway houses holding six or fewer residents.
But Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-Long Beach), who also attended the meeting, said he is considering introducing legislation to give at least some regulatory power over such facilities back to city officials.
"The most objectionable part of this is that the local community has no say," Elder told the residents. "I will be pressing to have this facility closed down."
Several state mental health officials, however, say they doubt that Elder will have much success if he introduces legislation to give local officials a say in the issue.
'All of Them Have Failed'