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Client-run mental health drop-in center fighting for survival

Falling out with the county’s mental health provider has led to the emergence of two competing centers

by: Photo By Troy Foster - Peggy Adams, volunteer coordinator of the Determination Social Center, moves into her new office at 208 N.E. Cowden St. Adams says the self-run, independent support group is working hard to survive despite a falling out with the county and BestCare.

News Editor
    June 4, 2003 — The Determination Social Center, a self-run self-help group for mental health clients, has found a new home. It is the member-owned group’s third in six months.
    Clients with the Determination Social Center say they were the target of a failed hostile takeover by BestCare, a private mental health provider contracted by Jefferson County, that’s tried to run them out of business.
    But BestCare officials, or any of the county’s three commissioners, say that version of the story couldn’t be any further from the truth.
    In fact, few versions of how the the center’s relationship with its former landlord, Jefferson County, or BestCare have deteriorated during the past few months come anywhere close to each other.
    But this much is known agreeable: There now are two local clubs for mental health clients competing with each other, and several thousand dollars in grant money remain in limbo.
    BestCare now operates a mental health support group called BestClub near the corner of Sixth and D streets. That’s the former location of the SOS Center, the predecessor to the Determination Social Center then known as Save Our Sanity.
    The Determination Social Center updated its nonprofit status, changed its name, and moved out of that location in December to a home on A Street near the High Lakes Medical Clinic. Members said they had been sharing the previous space with people seeking counseling, who used it as a waiting room before visiting BestCare staff.
    By late April the social center ended up in court after the owner of the home at 285 N.E. A Street had served them an eviction notice in March.
    The landlord said the group simply did not pay its rent. The group said the landlord simply wouldn’t accept its payments, which it had pro bono attorney David Glenn hold in trust.
    Somewhere along the way, an attempt by BestCare officials and Determination Social Center volunteers to hammer out a memorandum of understanding deteriorated, and the latter’s access to grant money evaporated. The county asked the center to return several assets such as furniture, and for Peggy Adams, its volunteer administrative coordinator, to resign.
    “They want to control us,” Adams said. “We want to be able to make our own decisions. The trend for mental health clients is to be able to make more decisions.”
    But county and BestCare officials say the Determination Social Center must play by the rules if it wants access to a van paid for with mental health funds, and several thousand dollars in other disputed grants.
    “In order to receive funds the DSC needed an entity that was approved for funds,” Commissioner Mary Zemke said in a recent interview. “I would say they are trading their financial benefits to be independent.”
    Said Commissioner Walt Ponsford: “As the county tries to deal with this, we have legal obligations we must carry out.”
    The DSC moved Thursday into its new home at 208 N.E. Cowden St. Members say their self-run self-help group has been the best help for their various mental health conditions, and don’t want professionals imposing control from the top down.
    “We are a family here,” said Delia Walsey, a member who previously was homeless. “If it weren’t for the people here I don’t think I would have made it.”
    The self-run center is a place where clients can socialize, watch TV, access a computer, play games, cook meals and take showers. Most importantly, they rely on each other for support in dealing with their conditions.
    The group has roughly 80 members, some more regular than others. The membership voted four times to separate itself from BestCare, and has committed to stick behind Adams.
    BestCare’s executive director, Rick Treleaven, said he admires the support the center’s members provide each other but their terms were unacceptable when both entities tried to hammer out a services, assets and money-sharing agreement.
    “They may not understand all the constraints and contracts we have to work under to make a mental health program function, but I think the model is correct,” Treleaven said in a recent interview.
    “I think the idea of a fairly independent drop-in center working in collaboration with a mental health center works very well,” he added. “We will try to do that all over again, but we have a mess on our hands right here.”
    The Determination Social Center had financial troubles when it moved to the building on A Street that it recently vacated. The Accountable Behavioral Health Alliance, a Corvallis-based organization that distributes federal mental health funds to five counties, had earmarked an $11,000 center operations grant to the Determination Social Center, but when BestCare opened its BestClub it had to rescind the award.
    Cory Van Alstine, the alliance’s consumer affairs specialist, said his organization, under federal guidelines, cannot grant money to a group in competition with a county’s contracted mental health provider.
    He said when the Determination Social Center was awarded the grant, it was done with the understanding that the clients would be working with BestCare.
    “We would still like to give it to DSC because our ultimate goal is to help the consumers with their project,” Van Alstine said. “This money will never go to BestCare. This pool goes just to consumer-run projects.
    “So our stance right now is that these are two businesses that need to resolve their issues.”
    After the Determination Social Center was served its eviction notice, BestCare began paying the landlord its rent to secure the property. BestCare intended to move its club to the former center site, but Treleaven has since decided that is unwise because it could be construed as a hostile takeover.
    “That wasn’t my intent,” he said. “But if we moved into that house I don’t think we’ll ever get beyond the conflict.”
    Social center members say they will continue fighting for funds they believe are earmarked for their clients, and might file a lawsuit to try to compel a hand-over with the help of a pro bono attorney from Portland.
    Recently, the center signed a fee-for-service contract with the Community Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation agency to provide pre-employment, on-the-job and job retention training.
    “Basically, what we’ve done is move on and look for money in other places,” Adams said. That includes seeking donations from corporations, individuals or churches.
    “Services are dwindling,” Adams said. “So our goal is to stay open and stay going.” Of the success so far of BestClub, Treleaven said: “It’s going along.”
    “It’s certainly not going as well as before the split-up,” he said. “Some (clients) go to both, some go to their’s and some go only to us and we’re open to whatever works.”