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Treatment Plans Rile Neighbors
January, 2003

Proposed substance abuse recovery site alarms residents in Richmond

CONTRA COSTA TIMES

 

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.

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."

IF YOU GO

 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

 Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or rrosenlum@cctimes.com

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