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Richmond Rife With Rumors Over Proposal For Former East Bay Hospital
January 12, 2003

The article that follows from the January 11 West County Times has more information about a proposed project by Neighborhood House to create a "treatment center," than I have heard in all the rumors flowing over and out of central Richmond this past week.

When I first heard about the project, I asked the city manager and other City officials for information. It turns out that they had also heard rumors but no hard facts. Apparently no permit or discretionary review applications have been filed with the City at this time.

When I was queried by Times reporters, I could make no assessment because I had no facts. My comments in the Times article may sound like tentative support, but they were not. What was not quoted was my opposition to any facility that would bring in patients or clients from outside Richmond.

As background, the City Council Public Services and Public Safety Committee, on which I sit, received a presentation last week from the Police and Corrections Team (PACT), which consists of a number of service providers, the Richmond and San Pablo Police Departments and the Regional Office of the Parole Board of the California Department of Corrections. They told us that there are approximately 800 parolees in Richmond and San Pablo, with 45-50 being released each month. Many of these individuals continue to commit crimes and face despair when dealing with the problems of substance abuse, affordable housing, employment, mental health and family relations. The Police Department started PACT in an effort to ease the transition of parolees assimilating into society.

Each newly released parolee must attend an orientation meeting upon release. These orientation meetings give paroles an opportunity to learn of resources available to them. Service providers assist with housing, education, employment, job raining, substance abuse and child care.

There have been four meetings since the inception of the program, with from 28 to 47 persons attending. No-shows ranged from 4 to 8. Those missing meetings receive follow-up visits. During one of the follow-up visits, a parolee was arrested for possessing a .38 caliber handgun and drugs. The case was remanded for Federal prosecution.

The California prison system is not intended to rehabilitate inmates or send them out with marketable skills. We were told that 80 percent have a history of substance abuse but that only six beds exist in West County substance abuse treatment programs. By law, parolees must be returned to the location of their last legal address, which means Richmond will continue to be a major destination, and Governor Davis' plan to empty the prisons to save money will exacerbate and already critical situation in Richmond. Similarly, Richmond is replete with various types of "halfway houses" that cannot be refused, also by California law and are attracted primarily by the City's comparatively low property values and low rents.

If a facility can emerge in Richmond that can, through outside funding, provide services to help transition our 800 (and growing) parolees from lives of crime and substance abuse to productive lives, we will all benefit, because they are here anyway. If, however, this is just another scheme to capitalize on cheap real estate to make Richmond a destination for more troubled folks, It would be difficult to justify or to support.

The fact that 50 percent of the existing parolees in Neighborhood House's current 41-person program are from outside Richmond is quite troubling. According to the Times article, the proposal has been floating around for at least five months, but Neighborhood House has never apprised the City Council of the project or apparently provided any documentation that would help dispel rumors.

We City Council folks do not like surprises, nor do we like to be last to find out about controversial community issues. Neighborhood House has some apologizing to do and may have an uphill battle on their hands. Another highly regarded provider of rehabilitation services, Rubicon, recently lost an effort to construct a transitional housing project in the Iron Triangle. Packaged with other community improvements, including market rate housing and infrastructure, it could have been a winner. But bad publicity, poor planning and narrowly focused presentations to community groups killed it before it was out of the box.

What both of these projects share is a failure to make the community a part of the planning process rather than springing the project full-grown on a neighborhood already grown suspicious and skeptical.

WEST COUNTY TIMES, January 11, 2003:

Proposed substance abuse recovery site alarms residents in Richmond
By Rebecca Rosen Lum and Karl Fischer

RICHMOND - In the hulk of a long-abandoned hospital, Barbara Becnel, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood House, has a vision for a new kind of treatment center that can give many their first chance at a real life.

The West County Human Development Center, planned for the 43,000-square-foot carcass of the former East Bay Hospital, would provide substance abuse treatment in a highly structured residential program that includes literacy and job training, and myriad community services.

"I am excited about this and my belief is when the community hears it all, they will be excited, too," said Becnel, whose group is in the process of buying the building and planning for programs with partners Contra Costa College and Citibank.

But in recent weeks, rumors have roiled through the North and East and Belding Woods neighborhoods that a 255-bed institution serving parolees is in the offing. Merchants and residents say they fear their community, which has just begun to bud after years of disabling gang and drug activity, would be hobbled anew as felons and their visitors and accomplices pour into the streets.

Becnel has invited the community to two neighborhood meetings this week to help brainstorm for its future -- and, she hopes, to dispel growing rumors.

Along with myriad out-patient and post-treatment programs, Neighborhood House already serves 41 recovering substance abusers in three community-based centers. Becnel hopes to consolidate all the programs under one roof at the hospital site. The total number of residents would not increase, she said.

The goal is to mix intense substance abuse treatment in a locked second floor program using only about a quarter of the facility's available space.

Much of the rest would include job training, literacy, computer skills and a culinary arts program, the latter two overseen by the college. Citibank will operate a financial and consumer services center on the ground floor that can serve up "everything from basic financial literacy to small-business loans."

The classes and services, including a 30-workstation DSL-powered computer lab, will be open to "anyone in the neighborhood that wants community college-level classes," she said.

"They've been working on that with our strong support," said Steve Loveseth, a manager with the County Health Services alcohol and drug treatment division, which funds many of the nonprofit organization's programs.

"A lot of people have coveted that site. Barbara Becnel has been working her tail off to make that happen. I'd love to hear that it's going to happen."

In particular, Loveseth has championed Becnel's mission to bring treatment services to women, who have fewer treatment options than men in the county.

But many area residents interviewed for this article voiced fear and skepticism about a program that would bring parolees and substance abusers to a block that includes a preschool and elementary school -- the result, they say, of Neighborhood House's silence about its plans.

"A lot of people have not been made aware of this," said Ahmed Jelani, acting president of the Belding Woods Neighborhood Council. "I told them, 'Fly it by the community first. You don't come in -- boom, boom -- set up shop.'

"Something of that magnitude will change the complexity of the community. This thing they're trying to do must be carefully, carefully orchestrated. I don't want to just wake up and find a rehab center. That's when the lawsuits start."

North and East Neighborhood Council chairwoman Sandi Genser-Maack urged Neighborhood House to begin knocking on neighbors' doors nearly five months ago.

"Then months passed, and I couldn't reach them," she said. "The last idea for that place was a halfway house for nonviolent offenders. Nobody would even listen to them. I've tried to stress to (Neighborhood House) that the community can be a major factor."

But Becnel said she held off approaching the community until she had financing in place and something tangible to offer.

"We've been talking to our partners, Contra Costa College and Citibank, to say, 'We need to get some real options nailed down,'" she said.

Many of the community programs and uses for the facility need community input to design and help bring them to life, Becnel said.

Becnel declined to reveal the sale price of the building. But an appraiser hired by the Bank of America, the lender, said the property value would double once Neighborhood House has moved in, she said.

Fear of parolees

In recent weeks, rumors surfaced that the program would house 175 to 225 parolees.

In fact, 6 of a planned 41 participants would be parolees, and half of them are Richmond natives, Becnel said.

However, although the center would house only 41 in its early years, it could eventually take in as many as 100. That some will be parolees is not a disservice to the community, said Vice Mayor Tom Butt.

"There are 800 parolees in Richmond right now, most in the Richmond flatlands," he said. "A lot are recidivists. The problem is that our corrections department just locks them up, then lets them go -- no skills, no assets, no home. Do the math: 80 percent of parolees are addicts or former addicts. That's 640 people.

"The only rehabilitation program in the county available has six beds. If these people are going to be here anyway, if we had the resources to keep them from becoming criminals, wouldn't we all be better off?"

Deputy regional administrator Greg Potnick said the parole division of the California Department of Corrections had not been contacted about any plans to convert the hospital for parolee use.

An official at the Contra Costa County Probation Department hadn't heard about the plan, either.

Neighbors cautious

Nobody in the neighborhood, which includes Happy Brown Bear child care and Grant Elementary School, seemed to know specifics about the plan or who exactly was behind it. And Grant Principal Jorge Lerma believes that is what fueled a wave of grim predictions.

"We're one block away," said Lerma, whose school serves about 900 young children. "Before last week, we hadn't heard a thing about it."

School officials were baffled Friday that nobody involved with the project had sought input or at least notified school officials of the project.

"All it takes is one incident. It would take one disoriented person, who may not realize what they are doing, to stumble onto campus or into a classroom," Lerma said. "People here would be very angry."

The neighborhood that Grant serves is in transition, he said. There are many young families, mostly Latino, and the area is densely packed with children. There's a positive vibe there, and parents are involved, energetic and vocal.

Lerma wondered if the lack of communication on the part of the organizers might indicate a lack of respect for the neighborhood.

"It seems like there's a sort of snobbery going around here," he said. "Perhaps they think that people ... who live in distressed areas are not going to have opinions or concerns about whether that is the appropriate building to locate a rehabilitation center."

Becnel reacted with indignation to the accusations.

"There's this idea that our clients will somehow be roaming through the neighborhood," she said. "We have a very structured program. They are not even allowed to roam through the building. This is a treatment center. This is not a rooming house."

Lerma said he would offer his school as a site to have neighborhood meetings about the project.

With a 166-person waiting list for a county substance abuse treatment program that houses 24, some suggest that the city stands to lose more than it could gain from keeping the doors from opening.

"There is a lot of research, a lot of information, that we need to have," said Jelani of the Belding Woods Neighborhood Council. "It could be a very good thing. My job is to make sure everyone keeps their boxing gloves on and nobody begins biting and scratching like Mike Tyson."


What: Tours of former East Bay Hospital and town meetings on plans to use the facility.

Where: Former East Bay Hospital, 23rd Street at Garvin. Meeting at Richmond Senior Center, 2525 Macdonald Ave.

When: North and East Neighborhood residents, Tuesday 6 p.m. tour, 7 p.m. meeting. Belding Woods Neighborhood residents, Wednesday 6 p.m. tour, 7 p.m. meeting.

Sponsor: Neighborhood House