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Mental Health Clinic Plan Raises Hope, Fear

October 27, 1995|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Allen has high hopes for the cavernous building on Vine Street. Inside the onetime Hollywood theater he envisions a bustling mental health center where fellow counselors help needy clients overcome their troubles.

But business owner Bob Goldfarb envisions an altogether different scenario in which unruly patients harass customers at nearby stores and attract riffraff to a neighborhood struggling for its economic life.

Allen and Goldfarb find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict pitting mental health advocates against community activists in the heart of Hollywood. At issue is a plan by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to open one of its largest clinics just blocks from the movie capital's historic core.

Local business people and property owners complain that the area is already inundated with an estimated 90 agencies serving runaways, drug addicts, homeless people and others on the street. The arrival of yet another program, they say, will lure more of the same and scare off new businesses and renters, further ravaging a community that for years has struggled to overcome a seedy image.

Members of the Vine Street Property Owners Assn. have pleaded their case before Los Angeles officials but have failed to halt the project. The activists remain undaunted, and are pressing the city to ensure tight security and strict oversight.

"When this opens, there will be an exodus out of Hollywood," warned Goldfarb, who runs a McDonald's restaurant about two blocks from the proposed facility. "We've hit bottom. How much further can we go?"

Supporters of the project--which would replace a clinic about three miles away that was damaged in the January, 1994, Northridge earthquake--say the fears are unwarranted.

Those who live and work near the original facility, on the eastern edge of Hollywood near the Los Feliz and Silver Lake areas, recall it as a model neighbor.

The senior Los Angeles police officer who patrols the area could not remember a single clinic-related arrest during the last decade. The head of a church day care center next door reported no problems. And the principal of a school across the street appeared at recent public hearings to defend the clinic.

"I've been here since 1988 and there were zero clients that ever gave us trouble," said Betty Hastie Castaneda, principal of Los Feliz Elementary School. "I'm sure the [new] Hollywood mental health clinic will be as good a neighbor as they were to us."

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg is among those who see the proposed facility as a valuable resource now missing from the Hollywood area.

Goldberg and other supporters note that many Hollywood clients were left without psychiatric care when the original center was forced to move to temporary quarters near Koreatown after the earthquake.

The county has already signed a 10-year lease on the vacant building that would house the clinic, which expects to provide counseling and medication for more than 1,400 clients.

County mental health officials are also planning to expand the scope of the facility with new outreach counseling programs for homeless youths and people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Supporters say the facility would help address social ills that have left the area economically foundering.

"The only way we can break the cycle of decline and bring back the Hollywood community is if we develop positive programs like the mental health center," said Capt. Glenn R. Ackerman, who commands the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood Division.

Leaders at the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, while stopping short of officially endorsing the project, have also expressed informal support.

"There are people with mental and health problems who need help. Let's have a place where they can hopefully improve their condition," said Bill Welsh, president emeritus of the chamber. "By doing that, [we] can take the problem off the street."

Mental health advocates believe that much of the resistance in the community is the result of misperceptions about mental illness.

Most of those who suffer from emotional and psychological troubles are not violent or uncontrollable but lead productive lives, relying on medication and counseling to remain stable, the experts say.

"The people we're talking about are our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our neighbors who happen to have mental illness," said Allen, deputy director of adult services at the county Mental Health Department. "These people can be made productive members of society. If we can get them into treatment, we can improve their lives and the neighborhood."

The officials insist that the clinic would not become a magnet for needy people living in other areas but would primarily serve the Hollywood community. Counselors would see about half of the patient load at nearby group homes and private residences.

One group of parents from a nearby private school has expressed concerns about safety.

"We're panicking," said Angie Garibyan, president of the parent-teacher organization at the Arshag Dickranian Armenian School. "I don't want my son to be around a mental hospital. You're going to see the school closed because parents are going to take their children out."

Opponents remain determined to stop the project, or at least to have some control over its operation. The property owners association is preparing a set of conditions that, among other things, would require the clinic to provide 24-hour security and to submit to periodic reviews by a board that includes community members. If the conditions are not met, opponents say, they will appeal to the City Council.

But Goldberg said she is confident the council will also approve plans for the clinic, should the issue reach that level. "I want to make Hollywood prosper," Goldberg said. "You can't accomplish that until you address the needs of people whose unmet needs are inhibiting that prosperity."

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