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Plan to house 84 mentally ill people in Turlock stirs up neighbors, city officials

Modesto Bee - 2/15/2024

Feb. 15—An overflow crowd in Turlock debated whether 84 mentally ill people should be housed in a former senior care home.

Critics said the plan would endanger students at Dutcher Middle School, just across Hawkeye Avenue, and cause other problems.

They and project supporters spoke for two and a half hours Tuesday night to the Turlock City Council. Its members and other city officials also questioned the plan and complained that they had not been notified about it.

The council agreed in the end to further discuss the concerns with the project's partners. The site is owned by the private A&A Health Services, based in the East Bay city of San Pablo. It has a contract to treat clients of Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

The site had been an assisted-living center, Las Palmas Estates, from 1982 to last year. It has a Colorado Avenue entrance and multiple one- and two-story buildings.

County officials said BHRS clients had been placed in part of Las Palmas for decades, including 29 when it closed last year. They said using the entire site would benefit local residents who now get treatment at distant locations.

"No matter how you look at it, sending people outside the county is not good," County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said. "Consumers have family members that we want them to be close to."

Issue came up Tuesday morning, too

Chiesa, whose district includes Turlock, was joined by all four of his board colleagues at the City Council meeting. They heard similar complaints at the Tuesday morning supervisors' session.

A&A is seeking a license for the 84 beds from the California Department of Social Services, said Betty Dominici, chief executive officer.

BHRS already contracts with several providers for about 350 mental-health beds around the county. The Turlock site would be part of a $4.9 million agreement with A&A for the current year. The state covers the cost.

The former Las Palmas site would be for people who no longer need hospital care but still have "serious mental illness," a Nov. 7 report to the county board said.

Clients could come and go, unlike the locked quarters for severe cases. The staff would help residents take their medications, learn proper behavior and prepare for eventual jobs.

'We're not hiding,' company CEO says

Dominici denied claims at the council meeting that A&A was not clear about its plan. She said she first contacted City Hall last July.

"We're not hiding," Dominici said. "We've always provided all of the information."

About 200 people were at the council meeting. Most of them sat in two overflow areas with video screens showing the proceedings.

Debbie Martinez of La Raza Parents Union spoke against the project out of concern for Dutcher students.

"What's going to happen if something terribly goes wrong?" she said. "Who do we voice our grievances to?"

Turlock schools superintendent objects

The Turlock Unified School District was not notified of the project, Superintendent Dana Trevethan told the council. She said 4,752 students ages 3 to 18 attend the five campuses within a mile of the site.

Trevethan and other speakers urged the county and A&A to find a better site. Resident Linda Ripley said they should "pick 10 acres out in the middle of nowhere, put a house on it, and wish everybody the best."

The Turlock Police Department also criticized the plan. Chief Jason Hedden said officers responded to as many as 71 calls per year during the time that A&A used part of the senior complex. The company's similar operation in San Pablo spawned drug use, panhandling and other crimes, Turlock Lt. David Shaw said.

Turlock officials questioned whether the site has the proper zoning for mental health housing. The council would have to approve any change.

Luke Henslick of Ceres supported the project. He said he has been sober for three years with help from BHRS, after two decades of drinking. He noted the concern about children near Las Palmas but said the greater risk is from not helping the mentally ill.

"Before you start thinking that people are going to start nabbing your kids off the streets," Henslick said, "educate your kids, educate yourself and figure out who we're treating."

Three people who need closer care

At the county board meeting, BHRS Director Tony Vartan told of clients who could benefit from the project:

— A 75-year-old woman grew up in Turlock and lived independently until a decline in her mental health. No local facility could meet her needs, and she was moved to one on the outskirts of Stockton. That was a difficult move, as she is cut off from her support network in Turlock. She is now out of the psychiatric facility but cannot adjust to the environs in Stockton.

— Another woman, a Turlock native with mental health and developmental issues, had never left the care of her mother. She was moved to an out-of-county facility, the first time she has away from family and friends.

— A man who needed the residential level of care was moved out of the county, some three hours away. He does not have contact with his spiritual support and his family is not able to visit.

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