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Mentally Disabled Find Hope at a Hotel : Housing: The Selby, a low-rent facility in Hollywood run by a nonprofit group, offers independent living units and a wide range of support services.

December 03, 1992|JOCELYN STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a long bout with severe depression and suicidal urges, it seemed that Dennis Bullock had finally lost the war. Mental illness had caused the Vietnam veteran to lose his home, his job and, most of all, his hope.

Bullock became a spectator in the world, watching from behind the walls of mental institutions as others lived the life of normalcy he longed to have.

"I was unable to work or function properly," Bullock said, recalling those years. "I didn't think I would ever be a part of society again."

But today, Bullock's view of the world has changed and so has his position in it. He receives treatment for his mental disability, holds a job--and lives on his own. His home is the Selby Hotel, a 29-unit, low-rent facility that opened in February in Hollywood and provides independent living units for people with mental disabilities.

"Living at Selby is like being a part of society again," Bullock said. " . . . Most of us have similar problems. I can have empathy for what other people are going through. We can support each other."

Operated by A Community of Friends, a nonprofit organization that develops affordable housing for the mentally disabled, Selby Hotel is more than just a place to live.

Residents receive a wide range of support services such as job placement counseling, vocational training, substance abuse counseling and crisis intervention, all provided by the Hollywood Mental Health Clinic. Most of the $402 monthly rent for a single room is covered by a federal government program. Selby residents, all of whom have low incomes, are expected to pay the remaining amount with income earned at jobs or through Social Security or general relief checks.

At a dedication ceremony Wednesday, city housing officials and mental health workers and advocates praised the hotel as an innovative and much-needed approach to providing housing for the mentally disabled.

"You cannot achieve your goals, you cannot become independent if you don't have a home," said Dr. Areta Crowell, head of the county's Department of Mental Health. "So many of us take that for granted. . . . We hope that we can see it multiply and grow."

Robert A. Sanborn, executive director of A Community of Friends, is trying to do just that.

A Community of Friends also developed Orbison House, a similar facility in Hollywood that opened last year. The organization is also working on several other projects. It is the only agency in Southern California that develops permanent housing for the mentally disabled, Sanborn said.

"A mental disability should not be a barrier to individuals finding a decent place to live," Sanborn said. "We have decent, hard-working people who just want an affordable place to stay."

But widespread misconceptions about people who are mentally disabled have made it difficult for such individuals to find housing, Sanborn said.

"The specter of prejudice and fear born out of ignorance (faced by the mentally disabled) . . . is paralleled only by the racism experienced by people of color," Sanborn said. "I do not make this comparison lightly."

Such fears make it difficult for the mentally disabled to find homes, and they complicate the organization's efforts to provide housing specifically for them. The group, which operates in three cities in Los Angeles County, has sometimes faced "fierce opposition" when trying to obtain city permits and loans for such projects. The rehabilitation of Selby Hotel, a $1.6-million job, was the result of a collaboration among several private and public agencies including the city's Department of Housing Production and Preservation and the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Selby resident Eugene Campbell, 40, who suffers from schizophrenia, says he is accustomed to the "paranoia" that exists about the mentally disabled. Sitting in his neatly furnished room, listening to music on his stereo, Campbell spoke without resentment about those who fear him.

"They won't even share conversation with you. . . . I know there are people like that who really just don't understand. We're just as capable as they are--up to a certain point," he said.

At Selby, residents pride themselves on their ability to live on their own. Many such as Campbell have lived in institutions, board and care facilities, or on the street. Cooking for themselves, being able to come and go at will, and even participating in the tenants' council, which resolves day-to-day problems such as whether smoking will be allowed in the TV room, are all new and often welcomed experiences.

For Bullock, who has not forgotten his days of homelessness and institutionalization, life at Selby is a constant reminder of the battles that he has won.

"When I see people homeless, lying on the street like I once was. . . . I want to reach out and let them know help is a phone call away."

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