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8 Evacuated at Group Home

Safety: Ventura fire officials say structure housing mentally ill was on the verge of collapse.

March 11, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Eight residents have been evacuated from a group home for the mentally ill after living for months in a structure city fire officials say was on the verge of collapse, a problem critics say illustrates the ongoing shortage of adequate housing for the county's mentally ill.

State officials admitted Friday they knew about the hazardous conditions at Ventura Garden Manor a year ago, but said they failed to report them because they thought the city was monitoring the facility.

Now, the group home on Santa Clara Avenue is threatened with permanent closure.

"To me, that shows you how bad the situation is for the mentally ill," Supervisor Frank Schillo said. "There's no place for them to go, let's face it."

The Ventura Garden Manor consists of five residential facilities housing up to 61 clients on less than an acre in downtown Ventura.

Because the dining hall was unheated and overcrowded, Dom Nicolas, the chief executive officer of Ventura Garden Manor Corp., decided to dig out a dirt basement in one building to make room for a new dining hall.

"We initially thought of providing better care for the clients by giving them a better dining and activity area," he said. "We thought since we weren't changing the structure it would be OK."

Four day laborers from Glendale and three diagnosed schizophrenics who lived on the site were hired to do the work, he said. By the time they had shoveled out 75% of the home's foundation, one of the walls inside the house began collapsing.

That was when Cliff Shinault, an inspector for the state Department of Social Services, visited the facility and issued a scathing report describing the building as "a dangerous work site."

The April 2, 1999, report noted that a client "had to move the bed in his room because an area of one of the walls is collapsing. . . "

Shinault ordered the group home to stop work and obtain a building permit. He also blasted Ventura Garden Manor's management for using clients as laborers. They were working "in the dark, late into the night without safety equipment and without supervision," Shinault reported.

Shinault contended clients were "being taken advantage of as they are being allowed to do much of the work for an activity room for $5 for three hours of heavy digging."

Nicolas, the facility's CEO, said Friday the clients had volunteered to work. He paid them so little because the job served a therapeutic purpose, he said.

Nicolas said he halted work and filed for a permit when he received Shinault's order. The process continued for months and the damaged building continued to be occupied.

In February, Ventura contractor Mike Ortado was asked to bid on finishing the job. Ortado inspected the damaged structure and immediately reported it to the city.

Fire Chief Dennis Downs ordered the building evacuated two weeks ago.

"The foundation footings along the eastern wall had collapsed," Deputy Fire Marshal Brian Clark said. "There was nothing holding that side except some plywood."

A second building was also evacuated for alleged fire safety violations, including nonworking sprinkler heads, leaky roofs, carbon monoxide gas seeping through heating vents and blocked fire exits, officials said.

The owner has until next Friday to submit plans to repair the property or face closure, officials said. And since the Fire Department has revoked safety clearance on the site, the state operating license for Ventura Garden Manor has been suspended indefinitely.

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