For three straight weeks in June a group of mental health patients pleaded with the City Council to save the beleaguered center where they spend their days.
After dozens of heartfelt stories the council obliged, rejecting a staff recommendation to cut funding and effectively kill the program.
But a group of South Berkeley neighbors and merchants charge that councilmembers were thinking with their hearts and not their heads.
They have declared war on the Berkeley Drop-In Center at 3234-3238 Adeline Street, which they insist has turned Adeline into a drug den, Fairview and Harmon streets into public urinals and the neighborhood into a summer shooting gallery.
The drive to close the center has emerged as the most contentious issue in this year’s District 3 City Council race. At the heart of the campaign to oust the center from Adeline Street is community organizer Laura Menard, while one of her top rivals for the council seat, Max Anderson, whose wife recently sat on the center’s board of directors, has rushed to its defense.
“Laura’s using the center as a political football to draw a wedge in the community,” he said. “Crime is not caused by the community’s most vulnerable people.”
Menard replied that she started organizing against the center in April, and discussed the issue with Anderson long before she considered running for the council.
“He knows I’ve been working on this for a while,” she said.
Several residents and merchants, some who are supporting Anderson, insist the neighborhood concerns are genuine.
Mike Gabel, who for 22 years has run an architectural firm on Harmon Street one block away from the center, wrote to the city council this week that he plans to move his business by the end of the year if the city doesn’t remove the center or make it clean up his act.
“The current situation is unacceptable,” said Gabel, describing a constant scene of drug dealing, loitering and public drunkenness he said has grown worse in the past year.
Anne Healy, who lives a block from the center, said when she tried to sell her house this year, her real estate agent told her to disclose the center as a nuisance to potential buyers.
“It’s a pall on the neighborhood,” she said, adding that one prospective buyer saw two men smoking crack in a neighbor’s backyard.
The drop-in center was founded over 20 years ago as an innovator in mental health. Instead of taking the traditional top-down approach, the center acts as an informal living room run by former clients. Clients with mental illnesses, many of whom are homeless and have drug addictions, come voluntarily for services and receive peer-to-peer counseling.
Pioneered in the Bay Area, the peer-support model came into vogue nationally in the early ‘90s, said UC Berkeley Professor of Social Welfare Steven Segal.
Seven similar programs now operate in Alameda County.
Fred Madrano, the city’s health director attributed the recent woes at Berkeley’s center to the departure seven years ago of its founder and longtime executive director Sally Zinman.
“They’ve tried hard, but I don’t know if they have the management capacity to run it,” Madrano said. “Certainly they haven’t achieved the results that we were looking for.”
A report last June from the city’s housing department faulted the center for providing “little in the way of intensive services, maintaining no individual client files...and having no capacity to report on outcomes achieved.”
To keep its $88,560 contract with the city, the council demanded that the center change its management, improve its services and repair relations with the community. A progress report to the city is due by Nov. 1.
The center is in the process of merging with the Alameda County Network of Mental Health Clients, another conusmer-run organization that has an office upstairs from the drop-in center and operates six other client-run drop-in centers in Alameda County.
The group’s executive director, Nancy Thomas, said the Berkeley Center has been providing adequate services, including providing housing vouchers and counseling, and that her focus would be to improve record keeping and document its successes.
Center outgoing executive director Emmitt Hutson counts himself among one of the center’s many success stories. He said the center was “about to have its problems ironed out” and that neighbors were too quick to attribute every problem on Adeline to the center and unwilling to work with center management.
“Everything they’ve done has been behind our backs,” he said. “They don’t want us here. That’s what it boils down to.”
Robin Wright, the president of the Lorin Avenue Neighborhood Association and along with Menard a leader in the fight to expel the center agreed. “People don’t want any more promises, they want them out.”
Sam Dykes, an Adeline Street merchant, said the center has exacerbated crime by making Adeline a lucrative territory for drug dealers.
“When you concentrate a couple of dozen people with the same problem in the same place, dealers know that there’s good business to be had,” he said.
A police crime map identifies the immediate vicinity of the center as one of the highest crime areas in the city. However, police spokesperson Shira Warren said that despite frequent reports from neighbors that crime is linked to clients of the center, the police had “no reason to believe there was a direct correlation.”
Neighbors and merchants didn’t welcome the center when it moved 10 years ago from its original home at the former Edison School at Oregon and Grant streets.
In 1994 council voted 5-4 to deny an appeal filed by local merchants challenging the center’s use permit at Adeline. To address neighborhood concerns, however, the council required additional conditions be added to the permit that neighbors say the center has disregarded.
The conditions call for the center to prevent clients from congregating outside, post contact information so neighbors can call in complaints, post a schedule of events and establish an advisory board of center directors and neighbors to work out problems.
Thomas said a report she will deliver to the city will address its compliance issues, but she questioned if she could reach common ground with the neighbors and merchants asking for the center to be closed.
“South Berkeley has gentrified,” she said. “People want to see arts, they don’t want to see us.”