BELL GARDENS — Last Friday was the first time Eleonore Ortiz walked a picket line. But her lack of experience did not show.
"Save our center, save our center," Ortiz exuberantly chanted in both Spanish and English. Occasionally she broke from the picket line to wave a hand-lettered sign at passing motorists.
Ortiz was one of about 40 people who spent the hazy summer afternoon crowded onto the sidewalk along Garfield Avenue to protest the threatened closure of the San Antonio Mental Health Center, an institution that many of the protesters said has literally saved their lives.
"This place helped me," said Ortiz' son, Isaias, who has visited the clinic over the past 10 years for treatment of depression. "I couldn't function. Now my mind is coming back to me."
San Antonio is one of 11 county-operated outpatient mental health clinics that the Department of Mental Health has targeted for closure by next month because of county budget shortfalls.
Five more of the county's 18 outpatient mental health clinics are expected to suffer heavy financial losses as the department tries to juggle $18.2 million in budget cuts--about 8% of the department's operating budget for this fiscal year.
County officials have said the closings are necessary to help balance the county's $8.95-billion budget by September. But standing outside the clinic last week, patients, mental health advocates and some county officials harshly criticized the decision.
The clinic, housed in a 14,000-square-foot brick building, has operated in Bell Gardens since 1972. It offers mental health treatment to about 15,000 patients a year in eight Southeast cities on a $1.2-million annual budget.
Mental health advocates complained that the closings would force many patients into a life of homelessness or institutionalization. The patients, most of whom live below the poverty level and receive free or reduced-cost treatment, fear they will be left without medicine and affordable psychiatric help.
"We are extremely concerned," said Alfred L. Bishop, a member of the clinic's 15-member citizens advisory committee, which supported the demonstration. "It would be criminal for this place to close down."
The protesters at San Antonio--many of them low-income, Latino mental health patients who have formed a support group called "Project Return"--said that their clinic would be especially missed because it is the only clinic in the county whose staff understands their needs.
About 70% of the clients served by the clinic are Latino. Many of them have escaped civil war and poverty in Central America and suffer psychological problems that cannot be addressed at other clinics, San Antonio director Yvette L. Townsend said.
Compton Staff Unaffected
The San Antonio Clinic was set up specifically to meet the needs of the overwhelming Latino population in the surrounding community, officials said. About 75% of the clinic's staff are bilingual Latinos, said Townsend, who also heads a mental health clinic in Compton. The Compton clinic will not be affected by budget cuts.
Although worried about the effects of closing mental health clinics countywide, Townsend said that residents served by the Bell Gardens clinic will be hit hardest.
"They don't generally trust institutions," Townsend said. "They don't normally come for help. But over time they have developed a trust in us."
Townsend said that without the clinic, "these people probably would not continue to pursue treatment." She added that the majority of the clinic's 16-member staff of psychologists, psychiatrists, clinicians and social workers could be laid off.
The San Antonio clinic offers crisis intervention, emergency services and individual and group therapy for people suffering mental disorders ranging from schizophrenia to depression. It also offers a peer counseling program for senior citizens who are confined to their homes.
Blame Put on State
Bob Ballinger, an aide to County Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman, said the supervisors recognize that there exists a "mental health crisis" and regret the closings, but blame the state for forcing the action by not providing enough money to help balance the Mental Health Department's budget.
"At this point the county is looking for a possible shortfall of $200 million," said Ballinger in explaining the inevitability of budget cuts. "And it could get much worse."
Last week, the Legislature passed a $44.2-billion budget that county officials said was devastating to many local programs, including mental health, courts, jails, hospitals and homeless shelters.
Ballinger said that after a June 15 Board of Supervisors budget hearing, in which the closings were announced, the supervisors drafted a letter to Gov. George Deukmejian asking the state to consider adding more revenue to the county's mental health programs.
"Without provision in the state budget . . . the county will be unable to maintain existing levels in the next fiscal year," the letter warned.
Matching Funds Possible