Dozens of Mentally Ill Homeless People May Leave County Treatment Motel

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

A view of the north end of Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment that stretches from Katella Avenue to Ball/Taft Roads. Feb. 1, 2018.

Up to 40, and possibly more, homeless people diagnosed with mental illnesses who had been living along the Santa Ana River Trail have been told they must leave a motel with county mental health treatment beds, and it’s unclear where they will go, according to people who have been staying there.

“They’ve not given a reason yet as to why they’re displacing these people,” said Buffy Christ, a homeless woman who has been living at the Baymont Inn & Suites motel in Anaheim. The county is leasing 99 beds at the motel for six months to provide mental health treatment through a contractor, Telecare Corporation, for homeless men and women who had previously lived at the riverbed.

“I’ve done nothing but cry for days and days and days,” Christ said in an interview Monday. She said she isn’t being required to leave, but that many of her friends are. “My friends, which are my family here, they have nowhere to go.”

She was among more than a dozen people staying in the mental health program who said in interviews a large number of people were told they have to leave in coming days. They expressed confusion and uncertainty about what would happen next.

News of the removals comes amid a series of complaints about Telecare’s treatment of people at the Baymont, including allegations it failed to provide health treatment, did not clean dirty rooms, and unnecessarily escalated a situation into physical confrontation.

Asked about the impending evictions, county spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig said “approximately 30 people are scheduled to be exiting the motel on Wednesday.” She didn’t specify if additional people are required to leave on other days this week.

“Exiting” is the term county officials use to describe when homeless people are required to leave a shelter or other residential facility. 

As for why this is happening, Nentwig said county health workers and Telecare staff conducted health assessments that determined an unspecified number of people at Baymont “do not require this level of intensive treatment as they do not have evidence of a serious mental illness,” as required by the mental health beds’ funding source, the Mental Health Services Act.

“These clients will be given an exit date from the program, and those who are willing to accept assistance will be connected to resources including general shelter, mental health treatment (at a more appropriate level of care), substance use treatment and/or recuperative care,” Nentwig wrote in her statement. She didn’t specify how many of the people required to leave have been offered the less-intensive mental health treatment beds.

“Where people go will depend on each individual and their specific needs,” Nentwig said. “For those who are referred to general shelter beds, there are beds available in the existing system of care.”

About 400 people have been staying each night at the Courtyard, the county’s 24/7 walk-in shelter for homeless men and women, which is in an abandoned bus terminal in the Santa Ana Civic Center.

In March, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said the county has been “cramming” homeless people into already-full shelters, and that it’s “nonsense” to try to have more than 380 people stay at the Courtyard.

“Many individuals who have significant mental disabilities and have suffered past trauma destabilize when placed in one room together with so many hundreds of other people,” Carter wrote in a March court filing.

“The Courtyard, with its already crowded conditions, may not be an appropriate placement for many women and persons exiting motels who, as a result of previous trauma and/or mental disabilities, are unable to cope with being in a room with over 400 other men and women.”

Joy Torres is an advocate who serves on the county’s Mental Health Board as a representative for people who receive mental health services. In an interview Friday, she said there’s no real treatment happening at the Baymont, and that Telecare and motel staff won’t allow people to visit people staying there.

“They never implemented treatment,” Torres said, adding Telecare didn’t have a treatment program until Thursday, May 17. The company’s county contract for Baymont services started in March.

“They kicked out a lot of [people], because they really need a lot of help,” Torres said. “Now they’re kicking out 40 more after the [health] assessments.”

Voice of OC asked county officials about the allegations, including details on the number of mental health professionals permanently assigned to the motel, when patient assessments were made and response to other treatment issues raised by patients, some of which were made public two weeks ago. Nentwig didn’t have an immediate response Monday.

A Telecare spokesperson said Monday evening the company was preparing a response to the concerns.

“The county seems to be systematically removing people who were approved for the [mental health beds] program, and have yet to receive any medical care or supportive services, over the past month,” said Brooke Weitzman, a lead attorney for homeless people in an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit, in a text message Friday.

“They do appear to be escalating that at the Baymont with no plan [for] where people should go. The shelters are still full, no new shelters have opened, and people who were put into 90 day options from the riverbed are nearly out of time.”

County officials contracted with the Baymont’s owners on Feb. 20 to lease 99 rooms at the motel. For mental health services at the motel, county supervisors approved a contract with Alameda-based Telecare.

The contract apparently was approved by county supervisors on March 27, and applied retroactively to March 1. Telecare, which is privately held, had about 2,750 employees in 2014 and was the second-largest woman-owned business in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the San Francisco Business Times.

As former riverbed homeless people’s 30-day stays wrapped up in March, county officials referred people to various beds based on health assessments of 589 people.

In all, county officials said 149 people relocated to mental health beds, known as “Full Service Partnerships,” or “FSPs,” as of late March when the earlier, 30-day stays ended.

Another 22 people were not eligible for the program but were staying in the mental health rooms with a partner who was eligible, according to the county.

Several allegations were made about Telecare during the most recent Board of Supervisors meeting, on March 8.

During public comments, Anaheim resident and homeless advocate Jeanine Robbins said Telecare was not providing the medication people need, evicting people for “rule violations” despite people not understanding the rules and the rules changing “on a daily basis,” and “using snitches inside to try and divide this already frazzled community.”

“The county has failed again while spending huge sums of money,” Robbins told supervisors. “Basic food is not adequate nutritionally. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are given to those who have a fatal allergy to peanuts. Donuts [are served] for breakfast.

“There’s no refrigerator or cooking abilities in any room. Just yesterday a refrigerator was delivered by a private citizen for a diabetic woman who has to have [her] insulin stored. The staff was so hostile about accepting the refrigerator to store in their offices for her medication,” she added.

“[There are] reports of taking their [electronic food stamp] monies or their food allowance, disqualifying them for general relief,” Robbins said. “So I would hope that maybe somebody would get over there and investigate what is happening. Advocates have been banned. We had a flatbed trailer yesterday that had thousands of pounds of food from the food bank to give to those residents there, and it was not allowed on property.”

At the end of Robbins’ comments, Supervisor Todd Spitzer asked county CEO Frank Kim “…can you make sure your staff looks into those particular allegations and get back to the board?”

“Absolutely,” Kim replied.

Nentwig, the county spokeswoman, said Monday an investigation was completed regarding the concerns raised at the May 8 supervisors’ meeting. She declined to say what it found, but added she was “still looking into additional details we may be able to share on that.”

Tony Chargualaf, who has been living at the motel, said in an interview Friday people staying there “don’t even get water.”

“These guys have not moved on one treatment plan for any of the clients,” he added.

Chargualaf said the rooms are dirty, with no real cleaning happening and staff let trash pile up by the dumpster. 

“They will not let you walk on the property — they won’t let a lawyer walk on the property,” he said.

Christ, the homeless woman who has been staying at the mental health beds, recalled a story about staff’s treatment of a woman with schizophrenia that was also told by two other people staying at the Baymont.

Christ said her next-door neighbor “truly is schizophrenic,” and when the woman’s husband came home from jail, she had an episode.

“He called downstairs for Telecare, the mental health people supposed to help us,” Christ said. “Instead they sent the [woman] at the front desk to help her.”

The employee “pushed her way in” to the room, Christ said. The schizophrenic woman then pushed the employee, she said.

The couple “had 15 minutes to be out of that motel,” Christ said. “Fifteen minutes to pack their shit and get the fuck out.”

Telecare is providing the motel services apparently under a 15-month, $11.8 million county contract approved by supervisors on March 27. The company was ranked first in a bidding process conducted from late 2016 to June 2017, according to the staff report.

In a report published last week, the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury was critical of that county’s management of its contract with Telecare to provide psychiatric crisis stabilization services, including oversight issues and lack of public reports of inspections and audits.

“The contract between [Santa Cruz] County and Telecare provides for periodic oversight meetings and the right to review services performed. There is no publicly available record of any County audit or inspection of the Telecare facility,” the grand jury found.

“We attempted to view the [mental health crisis center] but were unable to gain access,” the grand jurors wrote. “Grand juries do not have the authority to investigate the performance of private, for-profit contractors to government agencies so we were not able to evaluate the accommodations.”

The grand jury pointed to a 2016 report by the local Santa Cruz chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that expressed concerns about Telecare’s care for people served under its county contract. In particular, they found a significant leadership turnover” after the resignation of Telecare’s top manager for the facility, leaving services seemingly “in disarray.”

“More and more concerns were made through the NAMI warm-line from families distressed about getting treatment and stability for their family members. We felt urgency for action,” the group wrote. It credited Telecare’s president and CEO, Anne Bakar, with acting quickly once the NAMI chapter brought the concerns to her and elected officials.

“We were impressed [by] Telecare’s transparency in acknowledging the problems, and the rapid action of hiring a highly qualified regional director…who then hired” other “highly qualified” managers, the NAMI chapter wrote in its report.

“Improvements in the culture of care are noticeable already.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

SaveSave