The approval of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for the purchase of the Old Coast Hotel as a centralized mental health services site as well as a location for five transitional housing units wasn't even on the agenda for the Fort Bragg City Council meeting of January 26th, but it clearly became the main focus during more than an hour of public comments on non-agenda items.
Members of the Carine family own the Old Coast Hotel. It has sat unused for the better part of a decade. The Carine's asking price for the property has remained fairly consistent, around $2.9 million. To many that price is well above the realistic market value. For $900,000, the Carines are willing to sell the Old Coast Hotel, through the CDBG grant process, to be used by Hospitality Center (the coastal subcontractor to Ortner Management Group for adult mental health services) for the transitional housing units and a centralized access center. So why are they letting it go for $900,000? Other than personal preference, the only monetary answer would appear to be that they may be in line for tax breaks.
On January 12th Fort Bragg's City Council held a public hearing on the matter. One of the chief complaints was that not enough notice was given to the public before the hearing. The one group of citizenry that might have a legitimate beef about notification are fellow business owners within a block or two of the site. It would seem reasonable that someone from the City or Hospitality Center or Ortner Management Group should have contacted the Franklin Street business neighbors of the Old Coast Hotel, particularly in light of the protest raised by neighbors about a similar proposal in March, 2014 for the same CDBG process at 300 N. Harrison.
At the Jan. 12th meeting the City Council approved, by a 3-1 vote, a resolution to go ahead with the purchase of the Old Coast Hotel for use by Hospitality Center. Which brings us back to the public comments at the Jan. 26th Council meeting. There were a small number of speakers in favor of the Old Coast Hotel and many more opposed. The opposition breaks down a couple of ways. There are those who are opposed to the Old Coast Hotel being anything other than a restaurant and hotel. Within that group are subgroups: those opposed to change, period; those who are fearful of any kind of mental health services building being anywhere near them (for some of these folk, the Farallon Islands would be too close); and many business owners who want a business at 101 Franklin St. because this is still part of the commercial district of Fort Bragg (Down Home Foods, CVS Pharmacy, and Coast Cinemas are just to the south; North Coast Printing is directly across the street to the east; Mendo-Lake Credit, La Bamba Grocery, Figueiredo's Video Movies, and The Floor Store are less than a block to the north; Purity Supermarket and the U.S. Post Office are barely more than a block to the north.).
There was also talk at the meeting about the old Social Services buildings near the southern end of Franklin Street. A couple of problems arise from this property, owned by members of the Affinito family: a good deal of repair work would have to be performed at the old Social Services site, so much so that it would seem far too costly to fit the parameters of the CDBG money; the bigger problem is that the Old Coast Hotel site was approved by the Fort Bragg City Council, the puchase option has gone forward, and escrow is likely to close on the deal within a couple of months. In other words, the Old Coast Hotel is this close to a done deal as the site of centralized mental health services in Fort Bragg.
What's left to argue or be upset about? There will be those who won't want a mental health facility anywhere near them. Near the end of this piece I'll let Councilman Scott Deitz's words at the Jan. 26th Council meeting answer the fearmongers.
If we grant the presumption that Hospitality Center can get things up and running at the Coast Hotel locale, Fort Bragg is still left with a sizable number of troublesome homeless characters. The ones who do nothing except defecate and strew trash everywhere from Purity Market south to Starbucks and Safeway. These people are mentally ill. Almost all of the trash tossing homeless are "dual diagnosis" or have a "co-occuring disorder," meaning that they have a form of mental illness and an alcohol or other drug problem as well. The trash throwers rarely seek help for their diseases. Fifty years ago ninety-five percent of them would be in locked wards at the state hospital in Talmage. The bill for that was paid for by taxpayers. The taxpayers of Mendocino County have been paying Ortner Management Group $8 million per year since they took over the privatization of adult mental health care services in July, 2013. Is there some sort of disconnect here? Ortner Management Group should be responsible for the care of the troublesome, mentally ill homeless on the streets of Fort Bragg. Ortner has its own locked ward in Yuba City and access to others around the state. However, many of the same troubled homeless have remained on the streets except for occasional short stays at the county jail.
Pay attention kids, we are going to 5150 class. If you are dead certain you know what a 5150 is and how it works, skip ahead. For the rest of us, Section 5150 of the California Wellness and Institutions Code allows a peace officer or qualified clinician to involuntarily confine a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes that person a danger to his/herself or others. A 5150 hold allows for someone to be held up to seventy-two hours against their will. Sounds like something that could easily be applied to many of Fort Bragg's problematic homeless. A 5150 form filled out by a local law enforcement officer or clinician in an emergency room might have something like this on it: 'Brought to ER by FBPD. Found in alley unconscious. Toxicology +/ or heroin. (Client's name) admits he attempted overdose. Hears voices telling him to run into traffic.'
Situations fairly similar to this often get the individual taken over the hill to the county jail in Ukiah. Here's where things start to get tricky for our John Doe troubled homeless man from Fort Bragg. Once he is in the county jail he becomes the responsibility of, not Ortner, but an outfit called California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG). Ortner is supposed to coordinate with CFMG about the care of prisoners and their mental heath services after incarceration.
If our troubled Fort Bragg homeless man exhibits behavior that proves that he is still a danger to himself or others he can be diagnosed while in jail and sent on to a locked ward facility like the one Ortner runs in Yuba City. Guess how often that happens? Well, obviously not enough because as Fort Bragg City Councilman Lindy Peters pointed out at the Jan. 26th meeting "If somebody is exhibiting clearly what appear to be mental health problems along with maybe alcohol consumption... our police force will make an assessment, an arrest... Then [the person will be] taken by one of our officers to Ukiah and incarcerated. At that time a mental health evaluation takes place. If you determine that there is not a mental health issue or the person who has been transported does not want help, they end up back here in town and that becomes a vicious cycle for our officers."
The "you" Councilman Peters addressed was Mark Montgomery, one of the main faces and decision-makers for Ortner Management Group within Mendocino County. Readers should go to their Mendocino TV website and listen carefully to Montgomery's response to the councilman. If that troublesome homeless person is taken by law enforcement, under the presumption of a 5150 hold, to the ER, but hasn't been technically arrested and if that person (here's where Montgomery's quotable words start) "tests dirty for alcohol and drugs, then that no longer becomes, believe it or not, a mental health issue, it becomes a substance abuse issue... If we attempted to place somebody with a substance abuse issue in a psychiatric facility... we do that at times because there's a lot of mental health underneath that because 85%, 95% of folks have a co-occurring disorder. Then that person will be placed. If it's a person that's just actively using substances and abusing alcohol then that person should be referred or taken over to alcohol and drug programs with the county."
Anyone else feel like there could be a Catch-22 amongst the mumbo-jumbo here? According to Montgomery, if one of our troubled homeless is taken to the ER, but not technically arrested, their alcohol or drug abuse can be used to keep them from becoming a mental health patient or be hospitalized. Then Montgomery admits that 85-95% of mental health patients have co-occurring alcohol or drug problems. How much money does Ortner save by not hospitalizing Fort Bragg's chronically homeless and mentally ill? Keep in mind, once a peace officer or clinician (Guess who is in charge of the clinicians on the coast? For the most part the answer is Ortner) does put one of Fort Bragg's homeless in a 5150 hold for seventy-two hours, that individual can be held involuntarily for another two weeks as long as a psychiatrist signs off on it. Guess who controls the miniscule number of psychiatris who make those decisions? Readers should also know that Councilman Peters is proposing a citizens' advisory board for these situations. This writer believes that it should be a citizens' oversight board, one that has power over privatized companies like Ortner, not just a committee which advises Ortner, only to have that advice ignored.
Shortly after the interchange between Councilman Peters and Ortner's Mark Montgomery, City Councilman Scott Deitz read a statement concerning his support for locating mental health services at the Old Coast Hotel. Much of it bears permanent preservation:
"When I was growing up I never saw a homeless person. I only heard about hobos and skid rows in big cities. Of course, back then you could work at a gas station and support a family, buy a house and car, and go on vacations. Times have changed. If you work at a gas station now you can hardly support yourself. It is predicted that within two years the top 1% will own over 50% of all the wealth in the world.
"This change in our economy has resulted in one out of every 95 people in California being homeless. It is a problem that all cities are dealing with, not just Fort Bragg. However, Fort Bragg has become especially vulnerable since the closure of the mill. Two-thirds of Fort Bragg families are either low income, very low income or extremely low income. 70% of the students in Fort Bragg schools qualify for free or reduced lunches. Rents in Fort Bragg are high and many families are one paycheck away from needing help.
"... Most have said that they know we need the [mental health] services and strongly support the Hospitality House programs, but just don't like the location or this use for the historic Coast Hotel. Several letters we received opposing this project reflect the mistaken belief that it is going to be used as a homeless shelter. The building will not be used as a homeless shelter nor will it provide on-site meals for the homeless.
"What it will be is five transitional housing units, a wellness center and much needed mental health services. It will not attract homeless from out of the area because it does not provide free food or free lodging. A client has to qualify for a transitional housing unit, must be clean and sober and have a desire to move on to permanent housing. 84% of Hospitality House transitional housing clients have been successful in doing so.
"The wellness portion of the facility will provide classes such as life skills, employability, how to interview and budgeting. Future plans include vocational training and a computer lab...
"Improvements to mental health services are one of the biggest benefits to consolidating these services in one building. It will be easier to help clients stay on their meds and will make referrals for undiagnosed conditions more effective. Mental health problems are the hardest for us to deal with. We look the other way when someone yells at something that nobody else can see or begins hitting themselves in the head. Two of the biggest tragedies in our town were caused by people with mental illness. Some still blame Ronald Reagan, some blame the County, and we all hope that somebody else will do something about it. This is a chance for us to do something about it. A majority of those who will benefit from these improved mental health services are people who live in Fort Bragg. How many of us have a family member, a friend or classmate who has needed the kind of help this facility will provide?
"Business owners are concerned that there will be more homeless in the downtown area thereby keeping shoppers and tourists away. Visitors to Fort Bragg are not surprised by our homeless. They have their own homeless where they come from. Mendocino has many homeless hanging out yet is crowded with tourists. San Francisco is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and has panhandlers on every street corner and others sleeping in doorways...
"The search for a suitable building for these services has been long, starting in 2007. Many potential sites have been considered, including the old social services building owned by the Affinitos. Unfortunately, none have been appropriate, either costing too much or needing too much work to fit their needs. [When] the Hospitality Center identified a site in a residential neighborhood... it was strongly suggested to them that the site near the [Bainbridge] park was not appropriate. They were told that the commercial area would be preferable to one in a residential neighborhood...
"Concerns were then raised that this project [at the Old Coast Hotel] should not be located in a commercial zone... I believe that this project could add vibrancy to this corner [Oak and Franklin Sts.]. A possible coffee house and other potential community uses would add some life to what is now an under utilized area...
"Vacant buildings deteriorate... The Old Coast Hotel is already beginning to need paint and repairs. A few more years of non-use would cause serious deferred maintenance problems... This building will be loved and cared for. Pride of ownership will set an example for other building owners and will help improve the self-esteem of those who use the building.
"Like everyone else I do not welcome those who live off the system and mooch off others. This facility will not be a destination for the migrants or travelers who panhandle on our streets. It will be a place where people go who want to improve their lives and are getting assistance to do so.
"If we took all of the people of our great city, all of the students, all of its teachers and nurses and doctors, all of the old time Fort Bragg families, fishermen and loggers, those retired and those still working, and rolled them into one large Paul Bunyan-sized person, what would that person support? People helping those in need, who are ready to help themselves, or an empty building?
"I think I know the answer and that is why I support this project.
"I would just like to add that there were several complaints during the hearing [Jan. 12th] related to unlawful conduct by the homeless. This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. Lindy Peters and I are on the Public Safety Committee that works with the police department regarding complaints such as these. I will put this item on our next agenda for the meeting to be held on February 11th at 3 o'clock at the police department conference room. Please attend the meeting, bring your concerns and ideas, and talk directly with police representatives.
"One idea that has already surfaced is to have more foot patrols downtown. The new wellness center would be a great location for a small substation to facilitate those patrols. Both the police department and Hospitality House support this idea."
This writer has criticized Deitz before concerning public safety issues. Given the January 26th City Council setting, with dozens of citizens ready to queue up in opposition to the Old Coast Hotel project and dozens more muttering disapproval among a standing room only crowd, Deitz's stand was somewhat courageous; not to mention fairly eloquent for a realtor with nothing to gain from this property transaction.
As for the ongoing problem, the morning after the City Council meeting at least one Franklin Street merchant reported more trash strewn alongside the business. Some of it was made up of paper plates and other items handed out with dinner at Hospitality House. No sooner had the merchant cleaned up the mess (circa 8 a.m.) a representative from Hospitality House showed up. Whether Hospitality House/Center and/or Ortner actually can stop the trash before it lands on the doorsteps of Fort Bragg businesses remains to be seen.
A business owner reported leaving a voicemail message for Hospitality House months ago about the nearly nightly trashing only to have no reply until the day after the Jan. 26th City Council meeting. The timing seemed fishy enough, then the Hospitality House employee claimed that HH had been sending their people around every night and morning to clean up. However, that business owner and others have been the ones doing the actual clean-up.
There shouldn't be a direct link between the homeless who are leaving their trash up and down Franklin St. and the homeless who will be served by a new centralized mental health facility, but how can the merchants of Fort Bragg make that leap of faith when they are lied to by the very people at Hospitality House who will have a say in how the facility at the Old Coast Hotel will be run.