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Program Gives a Step Up to the Mentally Ill : Walk-In Center in Santa Monica Offers Supportive Community Care

October 02, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Pat Seaton looks like a carefree Bohemian.

But he worries like a sailor adrift in a leaky boat.

Like many frequenting a cavernous building in Santa Monica, there is a duality in Seaton's nature. With his long hair tucked under a jaunty, bemedaled black beret and twirling his fancy cane, Seaton seems self-assured, if eccentric.

But in conversation he admits to persistent feelings of confusion, uncertainty and fear.

Seaton, 26, is a former mental patient.

He says he was hospitalized "four or five times" because of his reactions to psychedelic drugs. These days--carrying a guitar, cane thrown across a shoulder to support a bindle--Seaton often shows up at Step Up on Second Street, a two-year-old program that seeks to provide a pressure-free atmosphere for the homeless mentally ill and others with wounded minds. Earlier this year Step Up--formerly known as Project Return Center--was one of the programs in the state praised by the authors of a widely publicized report criticizing California and ranking it 42nd among the states in quality of care for the mentally ill.

Seaton, who lives in a rented room and has made Step Up a regular stop for about a year, used a nautical metaphor to explain why he comes to the former retail store and warehouse--to play cards, strum his guitar or take part in discussion groups.

"I feel I can grow a lot easier being around people that have been through the same things I have, that are on the same level I am," he said. " . . . It's kind of like a ship being out at sea and being able to come into a harbor during a gale. It's kind of like a long time ago ships used to go close to the coast so they could always come into coves. Hopefully later on I'll be able to go further out in the ocean but right now I'm kind of hugging the coast."

For reasons like Seaton's, about 60 to 70 men and women show up at Step Up most weekdays. They are lured by a center that shuns bureaucracy and--to their way of thinking--the intimidation of many programs for the mentally ill.

About 10% of the "members" of Step Up are homeless. But director Susan Dempsay estimated that 90% of the 700 people who have participated in the program this year have been homeless at one time and could find themselves without shelter at any time--often because their behavior forces their eviction from board and care homes. Many of the members receive monthly Social Security disability payments of a few hundred dollars, she added.

Elaborating on Step Up's open-arms policy, Dempsay said, "Anyone is welcome to walk through the door. They don't need to be referred, which is unusual. We don't do an in-take (an assessment). We are not considering ourselves a treatment center; we're not professionally trained as far as being mental health professionals. Our concept is to look at their abilities and not at their disabilities. We don't require that anybody even be seeing a psychiatrist or be on medication."

However, members aren't allowed to idle away the time, either, Dempsay pointed out.

"After we get to know them, we begin to make suggestions. We give them a calendar (of events at the center)," she said. "They can come as little or as often as they like but we do insist that when they're here, and there is a group, that they participate. So we're not a drop-in center. We figure that wherever they're living they can sit and do nothing. If they make the attempt to come here, we want to encourage them to participate."

A Dual Purpose

Dempsay, an energetic woman of 50 who became involved in working with the mentally ill when her 26-year-old son Mark became schizophrenic, said she sees two missions for the program.

"My feeling is that, as important as serving the clients here is, it's as important to change the public image of the mentally ill and to convince the county to move away from their medical model because they have proven not to be workable in the long run," she said. "And that doesn't mean you don't need your hospitals, you don't need your day treatment programs. But those are very time-limited. We need to create in the community a place that those who are not going to recover immediately have a supportive environment no matter how long it's necessary."

In some cases, just making contact with a person who has come through the doors can be difficult.

"We have a man in here who we know nothing about," Dempsay said one day recently. "He's been coming for one month. He is just totally . . . he's quiet so he hasn't been a problem and we've let him just be but now we're trying to find out who he is, if he has a place and why he's coming."

But most of Step Up's members have learned how to at least maintain an appearance of normalcy, Dempsay said.

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