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Spokane group home shutting down

Thu., Jan. 27, 2005

Craig Ferguson lives in a tiny room in a sprawling group home in south Spokane. A small television sits atop a record player that no longer spins. A cloth picture of two elk, horns interlocked in battle, hangs above his bed.

On Wednesday, Ferguson stood under the door frame leading to his room, and stared at the plastic bags filled with his clothes. After 14 years at the Hilltop Center, Ferguson is moving.

“I’ll be all right, I guess,” said Ferguson, 47. “It’s been a good place to be.”

This week, the Hilltop Center announced that it would close its 21 beds for the mentally ill, blaming a decrease in referrals from mental health systems and a restructured county payment system.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years,” said Elaine Charon, operator of Hilltop and two other homes, which will remain open. “I feel like it just isn’t feasible anymore.”

Once cornerstones of the support network for mentally ill people trying to live in the community, the group homes have watched the number of beds gradually dwindle, as county officials have publicly encouraged more independent living arrangements. Spokane’s Regional Support Network, which provides public mental health care in the county, said it will subsidize 193 beds in group homes this year, down from 209 beds two years ago.

County officials did not immediately respond to requests for interviews on Wednesday.

In an e-mail message to providers last week, an RSN official said, “Everyone has openings, but we cannot afford to fill beds at a rate that is not financially sound for us.” The official said the county is “constantly over budget” on its residential spending.

At Sunshine Terrace, residential care coordinator Ken Niccolls said he has noticed a decline in referrals but said the home has survived in part because of its size; the home operates 60 beds in Spokane Valley.

“I understand that there are not as many referrals,” Niccolls said. “We might be better off than most people because we have a larger (facility).”

Kathy Weiss, administrator at Valley View Living Center in Spokane Valley, said the home has several vacancies but said she was confident her numbers would bounce back.

“It’s kind of the nature of the business,” Weiss said. “You see that ebb and flow.”

At Hilltop Center, 605 S. Bernard St., several of the residents said they have tried living independently but struggled to stay on their medications, off the streets and out of jail.

Steve Adams, a 39-year-old former dishwasher who has schizophrenia, said when he lived on his own, he stayed up all night drinking cup after cup of coffee. He has lived at the group home for two years, where staff members monitor his medications.

“I went off my medication a few weeks ago, and I just started falling to pieces after about seven or eight days,” Adams said. “I couldn’t even water my plants.”

Pam Brault, the home’s operator, said that for years the home has responded to personal emergencies – both minor and serious – from former clients.

“Usually within a month of a client moving out, they are back at the front door wanting a meal,” Brault said. “Of course you aren’t going to say no to a hungry person.”

Brault said the home will close Feb. 18. The home’s operators are working with case managers to find housing for the residents, Brault said.

On Wednesday, several residents packed their clothing and belongings, even though it may be several weeks before they leave. On the second floor, a man who has lived at the home for two years filled a bag with cigarettes and packets of sugar that he had hidden in his sock drawer. He said he had previously lived in group homes, on the streets and in shelters.

This, he said, was just another move.

“Just got to keep on moving,” he said.


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