It wasn't so very long ago when people with mental illnesses were generally stigmatized by society and subjected to all sorts of tortures in the name of treatment. People who were powerless, the poor and people of color were particularly victimized by the mental health system. Eventually they revolted. In 1985 they formed the Coalition for Alternatives in Mental Health, also known as the Berkeley Drop-in Center in west Berkeley. Originally on Oregon street they are now located at 3234 Adeline street near Alcatraz.
This modest store front is far more than just a place where people can come inside and socialize and have a bite to eat. The Drop-in Center offers a broad array of services by and for people dealing with drugs and alcohol or mental illness. Here people with limited resources help each other deal with the life issues they are facing as they strive to get stability in their lives
The mission statement reads; “The Drop-in Center is a multi-purpose community center run by and for past and present mental health clients and persons undergoing significant emotional distress. The Center is a safe, informal place for people to meet and socialize, share peer and group support, take part in recreational activities, and get help in obtaining basic survival and other life needs. The mission of the Center is to empower mental health clients and thus help them improve the quality of their lives by providing them with a support network.”
The center is open to everyone who needs support services. Each person coming in asked to register to become a member. There are about 2000 members. Every year on the first of July the membership list is updated. Staff person Catherine De Bose explains that every client is registered as a new client no matter how long they have been a member. They are asked four basic questions; “Where you are with alcohol and other drugs? Do you have chemical dependency? Do you have mental health issues? What is your financial status?”
Members can drop in at any time to get help with immediate needs such as mail and message services and computer access, transportation help, to participate in support groups and NA meetings or anger management class. “We have things in place to address whatever issue they might have, says De Bose. “Drugs and alcohol, homelessness, mental health issues, life issues. We have members who come in and just talk about life stuff.”
For specific issues requiring more attention members can make appointments with a staff person who can work out a solution or provide a referral. The five full time staff people are members with connections and long experience in the community they serve. In line with their egalitarian principles they don't have titles, but all are called coordinators. They can act as advocates to help a member get SSI, General Assistance or other financial benefits. Often people need help with the paperwork or an appeal or, De Bose says, “they just need somebody to go with them, to give support.” A staff person can help members with money management, and provide payee services. And they can act as peer counselors or give a member a referral for professional help.
The over-arching issue is homelessness which is increasing, particularly among this more vulnerable population. Many of the members and staff have themselves experienced periods of homelessness. To deal with this the Center has housing coordinators who are constantly searching for affordable housing and vacancies in supportive housing units throughout the area. Staff member Emmet Hutson, reports that “I find housing for people with low income is getting harder and harder. Most programs are full or have long waiting lists. For a person on SSI it's difficult to pay 7 or 8 hundred dollars a month when you only get 8 or 9 hundred dollars. Even the SRO's (hotels) are 5 to 7 hundred. But we are finding people housing. We're working very diligently in every area of the fair market, the real estate market to find housing for our people. Most of the people that come here want to stay in the Berkeley area. Berkeley is out for the most part because of the high rent. A lot live in Oakland and surrounding areas. That's the most important thing that this center is concentrating on is finding housing for the homeless. … Another difficulty that we have is not only the income situation but a lot of our people have mental health issues and it's hard to keep them housed once they're housed without help because people take advantage of them. It's been hard for us to break through subsidized housing.”
In addition to the coordinators there are eight former clients who have been volunteering and are receiving stipends. Jeff Ingram is a volunteer who helps people use computers. When he came to the Center some years ago a staff person here suggested he take advantage of the free computer skills training programs offered directly across the street at Inter-City Services (ICS). He took classes there for two years. He says he realized that it would take a lot longer to “really get trained” but he learned enough to come back and show clients how to use the computer for job search, resumes, setting up email access and such. He is homeless as are many of the members.
Cindy Foscarini is another volunteer. She takes care of the mail, does general office work, “whatever staff wants me to do”, she says. “I've been a client for 11 years or so. ... At first (it was) a place to hang out. I started helping out because I wanted to give back.” She is also working to upgrade her skills. “I want to get certified in WORD program at ICS”.
The Center is not a large space and it is impressive how many activities and how many people it accommodates. There are several small offices and rooms for private conversation, an area with computers, a room with comfortable furniture for resting quietly, a multi-purpose room for meetings or movies, and a patio for parties and occasional barbecues. Every day they see over a hundred people.
“We pretty much serve everybody that comes in the door”, says Catherine De Bose. “A lot are coming from homelessness, drugs and alcohol or mental health issues. It's hard to get everything together at once.”