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Howie Harp closing, leaving homeless without service

on October 5, 2010

Sun-bleached flyers covered the glass entrance door to the Howie Harp Multi-Service Center on a warm afternoon last week: persons gone missing, anger management support groups, field trips to the bowling alley. The walls, littered with bright multi-colored pieces of poster board, displayed photo collages from Clean and Sober Valentine’s Day dances and annual counselor appreciation dinners. “Welcome,” read a plastic banner hanging from the ceiling.

A skinny man in an oversized black leather jacket walked in.

“I need housing,” he said.  His voice was calm and matter-of-fact, as if this was not the first time he had made such a request.

Behind a desk crowded by furniture and boxes waiting to be moved, a counselor looked up from his clipboard. He peered at the man through a stack of old computer monitors and dusty file cabinets. “OK,” he said. “Give me a moment.”

The man backed into a chair. “I don’t have nowhere to go,” he said.

Starting October 15, the Howie Harp Multi-Service Center, at San Pablo and 18th Street, will no longer be a place he or anyone can go. For the last 21 years, Howie Harp has served homeless people diagnosed as mentally ill. The clients’ conditions run the gamut from schizophrenia and narcotics abuse to manic depression and diabetes, and Harp has provided such services as housing referrals, anger management, counseling, hygiene kits and meals. In the winter months, clients can dry off and warm up by playing a game of chess under the community center’s flourescent lights. During the hot summer season, clients depend on taking showers in the back room bathrooms to clean up and cool off.

But financial pressure and a building in disrepair are putting the 21 years of service at the Howie Harp Center at San Pablo Avenue and 18th Street to a close. Once Howie Harp’s contract ends on October 15, services will temporarily move to the Henry Robinson Drop-In Center, a few blocks away.

“This is endangering so many,” said Milton Hare, the director of Howie Harp. “You have 80 to 100 people who won’t have access to bathroom and shower facilities. If we close this place down, that’s 100 more homeless people walking around downtown Oakland.”

JB Brown, better known as “Tree,” for his tall stature and gentle demeanor, has been coming to the center since his father passed away more than ten years ago. Counselors at Harp helped Tree, who had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, sign up for Supplemental Security Income. The $800 a month Tree receives from SSI helps him cover his rent in a low-income housing studio apartment.

Tree starts his day at six in the morning, when Harp opens its doors. With coffee in hand, he and a dozen other clients participate in a daily check-in meeting. Afterwards, Tree eats a hot breakfast prepared by volunteers, showers in the center’s bathroom, and if necessary, washes his clothes in the laundry room. Depending on the day, there’s a mid-morning anger management or relapse prevention class, which clients must attend to receive lunch at noon. Between class and lunch, Tree plays dominos with his friends while others finish up arts and crafts projects from the week before.

“This place here is like my home away from home,” Tree said, pointing to photos of Christmas Day dinners, birthday parties, Mother’s Day brunches and field trips to the bowling alley. He’s in almost all of them.

Joe Carter, a counselor supervisor at Howie Harp, said he can’t help worrying about what will happen to Tree and his other clients. “They’re scared,” he said. “A lot of them keeping asking me, ‘Where are we going to go? Where are we going to live?’ That’s the same question that a child would ask you if you were evicted out of a house. What kind of answer can you give a child? What kind of answer can I give a client?”

Harp’s troubles reflect the budget crises that are jeopardizing publicly-funded services for the homeless and mentally ill all over California. Demand for public services like mental health, amid ongoing state and federal budget deficits, surpass the availability of county resources each year.  And like many counties in the state facing similar situations, Alameda County will end this fiscal year with a $177.6 million funding gap.

“We must make these painful decisions,” Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, chair member of the County’s Budget Work Group, said in a June 2010 press release. “The Governor and the Legislature are seriously considering program cuts that will devastate the safety net services that are the only remaining lifeline for the most vulnerable people in our community.”

One of those tough decisions is behind the eviction of the Howie Harp Center. The facility has been administered by Alameda County Behavioral Healthcare Services, which receives funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services for nonprofit programs serving the mentally ill. Using these funds, the county has been paying Howie Harp $362,000 per year for the last five years, to cover rent and program operating costs.

The building’s rent has gone up sharply in recent months, though, and the center needs considerable repair.  The elevators, which a lot of the clients in wheelchairs depend on, don’t always work, for example. The bathroom doors have been unhinged for more than a year.

Amy De Reyes, a policy analyst for Carson’s office, said they can’t afford to stay there for liability reasons.  “We can’t have a building that does not meet American Disability Act standards,” she said,

Some clients and counselors who knew the late Harold “Howie the Harp” Geld, the center’s namesake, said they wonder whether this situation would be different if Geld was still around. Geld, who had been a psychiatric patient in his youth, was a lifelong advocate for the mentally ill.

“I’ve been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, as psychotic, as manic-depressive and as psychotic depressive,” Geld said to a reporter before he passed away in 1995. “I don’t really believe in those labels. I’d rather learn how to control it, rather than be cured of it.”

Hare said Harp, who was originally from New York, was hospitalized for mental illness for more than a year at the age of 14. At 17, he was released from the hospital and became a part of the “survivor” movement. He later became a leader in helping people with psychiatric disabilities make the transition from shelters and hospitals to independent living.

He told people he had earned his Howie the Harp nickname when he played his harmonica on the streets of Greenwich Village to earn money for food and a place to sleep. This was during the same period, about 30 years ago, when under then-governor Ronald Reagan, the State of California drastically cut back its state hospital services for people with severe mental illness. The deinstitutionalization of psychiatric wards pushed thousands of ex-patients on the streets. Those without relatives quickly became homeless and incapable of caring for themselves.

Geld first became involved in formal advocacy through an organization called the Insane Liberation Front in Oregon in 1971.  After a stint in New York, he founded several advocacy groups in the California Bay Area in the 1980s.

One of those advocacy groups was the Oakland Independence Support Center, which Geld founded in 1986. A new home was built for that center when a building operator named Housing for Independent People (HIP) refurbished the 580 18th Street condemned building with FEMA funds after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Then in 1995, this facility, renamed the Howie Harp Multi-Service Center as a tribute to Geld, continued to care for those who might have been  institutionalized previously but were now expected to live on their own.

But in early 2004, the Howie Harp center ran into management and IRS troubles. Alameda County took the facility over, and looked for another agency to temporarily provide the direct services for the homeless people who used it.  The agency the county settled on was the international organization Travelers Aid, which was founded to help stranded travelers, and in the last few decades expanded its services to reach homeless individuals as well.

Travelers Aid agreed to run the Harp Center with the understanding that this was a short-term arrangement, perhaps lasting a year or two, said Lugenia Yates, a Travelers Aid board member. That was more than five years ago. Since then, a new deal between the county and Howie Harp has not been renegotiated. De Reyes said the county has been unsure about the future of Howie Harp and has continued, year after year, to assign Harp an interim contract.

In a series of community meetings starting in September 2009, planning panel members from many interested parties–including agencies, neighbors, family members, and the Harp center users themselves–have been working on developing a program that will bring Howie Harp back in line with the state funding.

“[Housing for Independent People] have been charging us crazy above-market-value rent,” De Reyes said. “We’re on month-to-month. That’s accelerated us getting out there. We have to be judicious about how we spend money.”

Tim Timberlake, portfolio manager for General Services Agency of Alameda County–the custodians of the county’s facilities–confirmed that rent increased 25 percent in April, when Alameda Behavioral Health Services couldn’t decide what to do with Howie Harp, and so transitioned to a month-to-month lease. The contract between HIP and Alameda County called for this 25 percent rent hike in the event of a month-to-month arrangement.

Tyrone Moore, Housing for Independent People’s executive director, said it is normal for a landlord in this situation to charge a higher rate when a tenant decides to lease on month-to-month basis. With uncertainty about what the county’s plans were, Moore said, his organization placed the property on the market for almost $3.5 million in late July.

Asked about the reports of disrepair in the building, Moore said staff members at Howie Harp are supposed to alert the county about any necessary repairs, so that the county can pass repair requests to HIP.  Moore said HIP has received no such complaints from the county.

Starting in mid-October, when the Harp center closes for good, its clients will be redirected a few blocks away to the Henry Robinson Drop-In Center, which provides housing and services for 54 families.  The Robinson facility was not set up to care for the mentally ill, and for now the relocation is only funded for the next six months.  But Naja Boyd, chief operating officer for Anka Behavioral Health–the Concord-based organization that runs Henry Robinson–said her staff plans to accommodate 50 to 60 of Harp’s clients, and that Robinson will be adding a mental health counselor to help with the transition.

De Reyes said the county will pay other local agencies to help provide additional support Howie Harp’s clients once they shut their doors.

But Harp director Milton Hare said he doesn’t see this as a viable solution. “These are mentally fragile people,” he said. “They are being asked to walk into other neighborhoods where there is no way to control what kind of people you’re with.”

In addition, Hare said Henry Robinson accepts drug users.  Some Howie Harp clients are working hard to stay clean, Hare said, and this could ruin their recovery.

Carter, the longtime Harp counselor, said he has seen clients coming here for the last two decades. “This is all that the consumers have,” he said. “Without this place, a lot of things are going to happen. Some are going to end up in a mental institution.  A lot of them are probably going to starve.  A lot are probably going to catch disease because they can’t take a shower here. Some will commit suicide. I’m sorry to say that. But I’ve been in this business for a minute. I’ve seen some stuff happen.”

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  1. Alex G on October 5, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Thanks very much for doing this story, and letting these people share their concerns in this horrible situation. Excellent work.

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