California authorities agreed Monday to delay the eviction of 14 mentally disabled residents of a San Fernando Valley rest home as the result of a class-action lawsuit that charged the state with ordering evictions with no hearings.
If the evictions go forward, as many as 12,000 people statewide who are 60 years of age or younger could be affected, lawyers for the 14 contended.
Under state law that took effect Jan. 1, the state Department of Social Services must decide whether residential facilities for the elderly offer care appropriate for mentally disabled persons younger than 60. (Previously the age limit was 62.) The mentally disabled may share such facilities so long as they are compatible with the elderly and require the same amount of care. Overall, about 70,000 live in rest homes in California.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in Los Angeles federal court was part of a continuing battle between lawyers for the mentally disabled residents at the California Villa Retirement Home and state social services officials who say that the mentally disabled are not "compatible" with the 140 elderly residents at the Van Nuys rest home.
"The state has decided that our clients must leave and face homelessness or institutionalization once again," said Michael Feuer, executive director of Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles.
Donna Mandelstam, the bureau's San Fernando Valley director, said the state has been seeking the removal of the mentally disabled from California Villa for the last 18 months because some of them were "hallucinating" and having other mental problems. But the operators of California Villa disagreed, arguing that the mentally disabled residents were making valuable contributions by assisting in the care of the elderly there.
"I've been getting along so well with the young people," said resident Dorothy Miller, 67.
Basis of Complaint
Feuer said the suit was filed because officials had given the 14 no basis for declaring them incompatible, and thus had violated their rights by failing to talk to them before threatening eviction.
The suit was filed even though lawyers from Bet Tzedek, a poverty law center headquartered in the city's Fairfax area, were negotiating with officials over the threatened eviction. They agreed Monday to delay any action at California Villa until U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr. in Los Angeles holds a hearing Feb. 22 on the lawsuit.
Of particular concern to the Bet Tzedek lawyers is the possibility that several of the group of 14 could end up on the streets again. Two plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Robert Melrose, 51, and Beverly Ford, 49, said they have been homeless for extended periods of time in recent years.
"I've been homeless before," said Ford, who said she has been institutionalized five times. "I don't want to leave. (California Villa) has offered me a place where I can know my own identity and what I can and what I can't do in life."
State officials, while declining to comment on the lawsuit, took issue with the lawyers' assertions. A spokeswoman for Department of Social Services Director Linda McMahon said the 14 and other mentally disabled in California can be housed in "adult residential" homes around the state. "There are 40,000 beds and I know there is space available," spokeswoman Kathleen Norris said.
State officials also said that they have been "incredibly fair and reasonable" with the 14 at California Villa. After they lost their appeal to remain in September, state authorities took no immediate action because of the holidays.
"It's not state policy to make life miserable for the less fortunate," Norris said.