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Ventura County Perspective

Housing the Mentally Ill

March 12, 2000

There's no disputing that Ventura County's shortage of decent housing for the mentally ill is critical. With one plan to address it delayed by the county's budget crisis, other solutions are being explored that range from commendable to deplorable.

Well worth pursuing is Supervisor Frank Schillo's suggestion that 16 three-bedroom houses that once housed employees at Camarillo State Hospital be moved to another site and converted for use by as many as 48 individuals with manageable mental illness. As the former hospital is being converted into the Cal State Channel Islands campus, the houses must go to make way for higher-density student housing.

Many details would need to be worked out but if handled through the Area Housing Authority much of the cost could be covered by federal funds. That kind of creative thinking is just what is needed to make the best use of available resources and get the job done despite the temporary budget crunch.

This plan stands in stark contrast to another effort to increase housing for the homeless that came to light last week in the city of Ventura.

The manager of Ventura Garden Manor, one of the county's oldest and largest group homes, put some of his residents and others to work a year ago excavating under one of the houses to make room for a basement dining hall. No construction permits or inspections were obtained. By the time a city fire inspector noticed the work, only 25% of the foundation remained intact and the whole house was in danger of collapse. He ordered the eight residents of that house to evacuate.

State and city inspectors and county caseworkers had come and gone for a year without sounding the alarm.

Advocates for the mentally ill fear that this discovery will result in closure of the facility, which provides 61 of the county's 260 beds for the mentally ill. That is a valid concern but it is not the greatest one. Putting the mentally ill in unsafe housing is no more acceptable than leaving them to their own devices.

Ventura County needs to find appropriate living situations for its residents least able to fend for themselves, and fast. Recycling the Camarillo State Hospital houses may prove to be a cost-effective way to do that. But overlooking dangerous code violations rather than jeopardize some of the existing beds is no way to fill this need.

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