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Clients Push for Mental Health Center

July 1, 2008

By Erin Hoover Barnett, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Jul. 1–Northeast Portland’s Garlington Center, a community cornerstone that serves nearly 600 people with mental illnesses, may avert closure thanks to pressure from a standing-room-only crowd Monday.

The clinic at 3034 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. faces shutdown because of the financial problems of its operator, Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. The clinic serves mostly neighborhood residents, including many African Americans and other minorities.

Multnomah County, which runs the mental health system, is downsizing Cascadia. Derald Walker, chief executive officer of the nonprofit company, suggested closing the Garlington Center because he thought its clients could get help from clinics elsewhere.

The county accepted this and other suggestions as part of its reorganization of the mental health system. But the collective message from Garlington clients Monday: Don’t do it.

“That I am even here is a testament to Cascadia,” said Adit Hughes, who explained that she has agoraphobia — a fear of being in public places. How could she and other clients be farmed out to other counselors and maintain their fragile stability? she said.

“It’s not just for my stability, it’s for my family’s stability,” said Hughes, who has three children.

Ralph Williams talked about what it’s meant to have a center with a largely African American staff that understands him.

“It’s been a long time since I smoked crack and got in trouble,” Williams said. “This place has been very instrumental in helping me stay focused and on track.”

Ryan Hamit, president of the Garlington client council, and other council members kicked off the 2 1/2-hour town hall-style meeting with Cascadia’s Walker and the county’s top mental health officials. More than 100 people attended.

Hamit handed Walker a folder of signatures on a petition to keep Garlington open. “It goes on for 40 pages,” he said.

Clients demanded more involvement in decisions. They pushed officials on why they had targeted Garlington. They emphasized that other mental health providers in Northeast Portland are not equipped to absorb all of Garlington’s clients and that the expense of a transition would be better spent to keep Garlington open.

Joanne Fuller, county human services director, said the county had to move quickly in light of Cascadia’s financial crisis and had been unable to get sufficient input from clients. This past spring, the county and state came through with a $2.5 million bailout for Cascadia after a bank called in the company’s loan.

Fuller said the county is committed to serving North and Northeast residents in their community, but must figure out whether Cascadia can continue to be the service provider.

The Garlington situation is complicated because Cascadia is buying the center’s building. If Cascadia were no longer providing the services, clients probably would move to other providers at other locations.

Cascadia’s Walker said that his company wants to keep Garlington open and provide some level of services but must, in partnership with the county, figure out what is viable.

State Sen. Avel Gordly, an independent from Portland, whose district covers parts of Northeast and Southeast Portland, stood several times and pressed officials to commit to keeping Garlington fully operational. Near the meeting’s end, she walked to the front, put her hand on Walker’s arm and looked him in the eyes.

She asked him to acknowledge what he had said to her in a private meeting: that he had not tried to think of a way to keep Garlington viable and had made a mistake in assuming other clinics could care for its clients.

“That’s right,” Walker said.

Then she put her hand on Fuller’s back and asked her to acknowledge that the county should have pushed back on the idea of closing Garlington. Fuller acknowledged that.

“We can’t have any more pain,” Gordly said. “We can work this out.”

“Absolutely,” Walker said.

Fuller said she couldn’t promise that Cascadia could continue to provide the same services at the center, but that she is now committed to looking into how that might be possible.

“We absolutely have to push back,” she said, “and figure out — can we find another solution?”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

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