The City of Long Beach’s plans for a new center for services to the mentally ill homeless are moving forward. At the monthly meeting of the Wrigley Neighborhood Association last Monday evening in the community center of Veterans Park, Michael Conway, the City’s director of business and property development, and David Pilon, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Mental Health America (MHA), spoke about the center to the approximately 30 people in attendance.
Conway noted that the building at 1955-1965 Long Beach Blvd. is being purchased by the City and is currently in escrow. The edifice will be renovated to accommodate the center, which will be managed by MHA. Conway explained that the facility will offer mental health care, physical health services and job training to homeless individuals, expanding the programs MHA now offers from its 465 Elm Ave. location. He added that the new site will include an upscale café, patio and bakery for the public’s enjoyment, as well as free WiFi and a community room to provide meeting space for local organizations.
“The center will not serve as a shelter,” Conway stressed. “It will have no overnight accommodations, and all counseling groups will have no more than seven people.”
Pilon told the audience that MHA has provided 50 years of service to Long Beach residents and programs in partnership with the City for about 25 years. “At our other facilities, program participants meet with service staff, who work closely with them on their recovery from homelessness and goals for healthy, productive lives,” he said, adding that the center on Elm Avenue serves about 45 homeless people per day and is “bursting at the seams” because of an increase in the number of people needing its help.
“We do not wait for people to come to us,” Pilon explained. “Through our Homeless Innovation Program, MHA staff goes out into the streets and homeless encampments to invite people to take advantage of the services we offer.”
No one in the audience opposed the development of the new center on Long Beach Boulevard, but several people expressed concerns. “It looks like a good project that will bring much needed benefits to homeless people and to the community,” said Alan Burks, Wrigley resident and president of Environ Architecture. “But why did you choose that location, and what assurances can you give us that there will not be any negative impacts to the surrounding area?”
Pilon explained that the location is ideal because the county mental health clinic is next door, the Social Security Administration office is close by, and many homeless people are already in that area. “As for negative impacts, as is true of our other facilities, we will have uniformed security personnel on site during the hours of operation,” Pilon said. “We will also have community outreach to get input from people in the area and a 24-hour phone line so that anyone can leave us a message expressing concerns about issues or incidents, and we will deal with those things right away.” He added that MHA staff are trained in procedures that discourage loitering and MHA centers are considered good neighbors by the communities surrounding their other locations.
John Edmond, chief of staff for 6th District City Councilmember Dee Andrews, was at the meeting. He told the audience that he and Pilon walked the streets and knocked on doors in the vicinity of the planned center recently. “We found overwhelming support for this project from the people who live or work in that area,” he said.
Colleen McDonald, Wrigley Neighborhood Association president, said she was glad that the City and MHA were expanding services offered to the homeless, but she was bothered by the fact that residents were given such a short notice of the impending council decision to purchase the property and develop the center on Long Beach Boulevard. “I wish we had been given more time to think about it,” she said.
Lee White, another Wrigley resident, noted that there were few places to park in the vicinity of the planned center. She asked, “How are you going to deal with that?”
Conway explained that the property already has 18 parking spaces. Pilon added that if funding becomes available, he would like to convert the facility’s subterranean warehouse to parking spaces.
Former California Assemblymember Betty Karnette, also a Wrigley resident, was at the meeting, and she strongly endorsed the plan to develop the new center. “I want to compliment the City and MHA,” she said. “We are doing something to help people who are in desperate need, and this is exactly what our society should be doing.”
During the meeting, Conway also briefly explained the process that resulted in the March 19 unanimous decision of the Long Beach City Council to acquire the property on Long Beach Boulevard and to partner with MHA in renovating the building, which formerly housed an export business.
Conway noted that for about seven years the City has been working toward obtaining ownership of the 4.73-acre, former U.S. Army Reserve Center known as Schroeder Hall, at the southeast corner of Willow Street and Grand Avenue. The City is able to get ownership of that site through the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act process. However, a prerequisite for ownership is compliance with a Housing and Urban Development requirement that local governments obtaining former military bases provide certain services to the homeless community.
Conway explained that the City hopes to move the East Long Beach Police Substation to Schroeder Hall, but in order to do that the City must also develop a homeless-assistance service center somewhere in Long Beach. “We’ve been looking citywide for a property appropriate for this purpose,” he said. “About three years ago the property at 1955-1965 Long Beach Blvd, was about to be listed for sale, and the City tried without success to reach a deal with the property owners. A few weeks ago we were advised that the new owners were preparing to sell it.”
At Conway’s recommendation, on March 19 the council approved the City purchase of the property for $2.8 million and authorized an additional expenditure of $1.2 million for improvements to the 28,000-square-foot building. According to Conway, $2.2 million for the purchase and renovation will come out of the City’s General Fund and $1.8 million will come from the City’s Gas Fund.
Pilon said he expects the new center to open its doors by July 2015. MHA, which is funded primarily through state tax revenues, will manage the center at no additional cost to the City for 10 years. At the end of that period, MHA will assume ownership of the property.