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Foes Strive to Close Halfway Houses : 'Put Cuban Refugees Somewhere Else,' State Lawmaker Says

February 04, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

POMONA — City officials, a local congressman and a state senator are calling for the closure of two Pomona-area halfway houses occupied by mentally handicapped Cuban refugees who came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

According to the officials, the patients housed at the two facilities are committing crimes in Pomona and pose a danger to nearby residents. However, those involved with the Cuban refugee mental health program say these charges are uninformed and unfounded.

Rep. David Dreier (R-Covina) on Tuesday wrote a letter to U. S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese requesting an investigation by the Department of Justice into Pomona Manor and Country Manor in Chino, two privately owned board-and-care facilities, which together house 79 Cuban psychiatric patients.

In letters to the director of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services' refugee mental health program, Dreier described the refugees living at Pomona manor as "criminals, sex offenders and people of low moral character."

Last week, state Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-San Bernardino), whose district includes the halfway houses, asked Clifford Allenby, director of California's health and welfare agency, to shut down the facilities and house the refugees elsewhere.

"Put them somewhere else in the state," Ayala said. "There's no doubt that these people need help, but why is the responsibility here in the Pomona area?"

City officials in Pomona asked Dreier and Ayala to look into the facilities in October after police Chief Richard Tefank announced that 26 Cuban refugees had been arrested in Pomona over a nine-month period for offenses ranging from public drunkenness to assault with a deadly weapon.

"The bottom line is we want these people out, and we don't want any more," Mayor Donna Smith said.

But social workers and a psychiatrist at the facilities said that the refugees pose no danger to the community and that the police have not been able to verify that those arrested were patients from the halfway houses. "It's been completely overblown," said Dr. Gonzalo Puig, the staff psychiatrist at Pomona Manor. "Our people have not been dangerous in any way in comparison to the general population."

That view is shared by Shallie Marshall, who administers the refugee mental health program from her office at the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Md. Marshall said she is baffled by the furor over the halfway houses and sees no reason to close them.

"I can't understand why everyone there is so upset about the Cubans," Marshall said. "It seems like someone has declared war on us out there, and I don't know why."

Avi Leibovici, program director for Pomona Manor, said the residents, most of whom were formerly patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D. C., have been carefully screened by psychiatrists.

"We don't have sex offenders; we don't have pedophiles," Leibovici said.

Leibovici said the patients are victims of bias against the mentally ill and a stereotype of Cuban refugees created by media coverage of events such as last year's prison riots in Atlanta and Oakwood, La.

"We feel there has been a cascade of misinformation," Leibovici said. "My hypothesis is that we're politically expedient. . . . We're an easy target. We're racially different. This population has had a lot of sensational press. And you also have the prejudice against the mentally ill."

Enrique Jurado, project director for Country Manor, agreed. "It's a political issue," he said. "They're not the most popular of populations--the mentally ill Mariel Cubans."

The patients are among the 125,000 Cuban refugees, known as Marielitos, who arrived in the United States in 1980 after they were expelled from their homeland by President Fidel Castro.

Although many of the Marielitos were permitted to become permanent residents, thousands who were found to be criminals or mentally handicapped have remained in prison or in psychiatric hospitals. More than 200 of those with mental health problems have been placed in halfway houses in Kansas City, Mo., Tucson, Ariz., Norristown, Penn., and in the Pomona area, Marshall said.

Cuban refugees have received psychiatric care at Country Manor--located in an unincorporated area of Chino along Pomona's eastern boundary--since 1982. However, Pomona officials said they were unaware of their presence until federal authorities contacted them about opening a second facility in Pomona.

Discussed Plans

In June, 1986, Marshall and the owners of Western Care Centers Inc., the firm that contracts with federal health officials to provide care for Marielitos in Southern California, met with Tefank and then-City Administrator Ora Lampman to discuss plans to house refugees at a facility that formerly housed Northgate Hospital.

"We indicated that we were in opposition to the facility being placed there," Tefank said. "We felt we already had our share of outreach facilities."

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