Ventura County's boldest attempt to provide housing for the mentally ill may still be two years down the road, but it's already beset by political squabbling and questions about whether mentally ill and homeless people should share the same facility.
Scheduled to open in April 2003, the complex planned for 29 acres on Lewis Road outside Camarillo is expected to house at least 125 mentally ill patients and offer shelter for homeless veterans and displaced families.
The project would ease a critical shortage of housing for the mentally ill. Ventura County provides 43 hospital beds for the mentally ill, and 17 board-and-care facilities offer 211 more.
But county officials say there are 2,500 to 3,300 severely ill patients in the county who may need occasional housing or shelter.
That is why advocates for the mentally ill say the estimated $10-million project should be exclusively for psychiatric patients.
They reject county arguments that both mentally ill and homeless people must be housed there to secure state and federal construction grants. Critics say allowing people there who are not mentally ill violates the spirit of a law sponsored by former state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) that deeded the state land to the county.
Wright said she intended the property only for the mentally ill as compensation for the loss of Camarillo State Hospital, which closed in 1997.
But her bill didn't make that stipulation, and advocates for the homeless quickly staked their claim to space on the property.
"I wouldn't have given [the county] the land if I knew that," Wright said.
County Supervisor John Flynn said most of the land would be used for the mentally ill. But without shared facilities the project would have less chance of getting state and federal funding, he said.
"We cannot re-create Camarillo State Hospital out here," said Flynn, who with Supervisor Frank Schillo co-chairs a committee to steer the project to completion. "If we do, we won't get funding."
Project Would Be Part of Larger Campus
Their intent is to build a place where seriously ill patients could be stabilized before being moved to other quarters.
The project would be part of a 58-acre campus where Ventura County already treats mentally ill adults and children in three centers: 24-unit Villa Calleguas for low-income mentally ill adults; 30-bed Las Posadas for mentally ill adults; and 63-bed Casa Pacifica, a shelter for abused and emotionally disturbed children.
The two adult facilities are full, with waiting lists, and Casa Pacifica has three rooms available.
Along with plans for 125 beds for the mentally ill, the new project calls for 100 to 120 places for homeless families who are part of the River-Dwellers Aid Intercity Network, or RAIN, set up in 1997 to provide temporary shelter for families living on Ventura County river bottoms who faced danger during heavy rains. Sixty more beds would be reserved for homeless and mentally ill veterans.
County officials who support a shared-use complex plan to separate homeless and mentally ill people with fences and guards. They say mentally ill patients would be housed there only after a careful screening and would not be dangerous. A typical stay would be six months to two years.
"There is no safety factor as far as I can see," Flynn said. "People who are dangerous are taken to locked facilities like the Hillmont Psychiatric Center [in Ventura]. This is a transitional facility."
The RAIN program, run by county animal control Director Kathy Jenks, would move into the vacant Assn. for Retarded Citizens building on the site about one mile west of Camarillo.
"We've got people talking about mixing, but there isn't going to be any mixing," Jenks said. "I just don't see what the concern is. I think there is plenty of land to go around."
Others say the project is a disaster waiting to happen.
"I think there is absolutely an element of danger," said Dick Clemence, an advocate for the mentally ill who attends the steering committee meetings. "Children and the mentally ill are antagonistic toward each other--kids tease the mentally ill. Then you have mentally ill people who just don't get along with children. You create an incredible security problem out there. One rape of a child by a mentally ill person and the whole thing will blow up."
Carol Luppino, who works on housing issues for the Ventura County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said, "Once again, the mentally ill are getting robbed."
Shared-Use Facilities in Use Elsewhere
But Carolyn Briggs, director of housing for the county Behavioral Health Department, said placing the homeless with the mentally ill is not a revolutionary idea.
A new facility in Long Beach serves teenagers, alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally ill and homeless people all on the same property, she said.