by Lydia Gans

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t wasn’t so very long ago when people with mental health problems were generally stigmatized by society and subjected to all sorts of psychiatric tortures in the name of treatment.
People who were powerless, the poor and homeless, and people of color, were particularly victimized by the mental health system. Eventually they revolted.
Sally Zinman is the executive director of the California Network of Mental Health Clients. In 1985, she helped start the Coalition for Alternatives in Mental Health, also known as the Berkeley Drop-in Center.
“When it started, it was a vision of ex-psychiatric people at the time, mostly from the Network Against Psychiatric Abuse,” Zinman says. “We chose Oregon Street where it was first located because we wanted to be more culturally responsive. So instead of having people come to us, we went to what was at that time predominantly an African American community.”

Catherine de Bose, a staff person of the Berkeley Drop-In Center, coordinates services for people dealing with drug and alcohol issues. Lydia Gans photo

In the early 1990s, they moved the Drop-in Center from the Berkeley Unified School building on Oregon Street to 3234 Adeline Street, although not without encountering expressions of NIMBYism. The Not In My Back Yard syndrome can strike even in avowedly liberal communities like Berkeley.
In this modest storefront, the Berkeley Drop-in Center has several small offices and rooms for private conversations, an area with computers, a room with comfortable furniture for resting quietly, a multi-purpose room for meetings or movies, and a patio for parties and occasional barbecues.
It is not a large space and it is impressive how many activities it accommodates and how many services are provided. Here, people with limited resources help each other manage the many problems involved in surviving and struggling to get stability in their lives. About 100 people dealing with drugs and alcohol or mental illness come in each day for help.
The Drop-In Center is open to everyone who needs support services. When a person comes in, he or she is asked to register to become a member. There are about 2,000 members now.
Staff person Catherine De Bose explains that every client is registered as a new client, no matter how long they have been a member. She says they are asked four basic questions; “Where you are with alcohol and other drugs? Do you have chemical dependency? Do you have mental health issues? What is your financial status?”
Members can drop in at any time to get help with immediate needs, for mail and message services and computer access, transportation help, to participate in support groups and NA meetings or anger management class.
“So we have things in place to address whatever issue they might have,” says De Bose. “Drugs and alcohol, homelessness, mental health issues, life issues. We do have members who come in and just talk about life stuff.”
For specific issues requiring more attention, members can make appointments with a staff person who can work out a solution or provide a referral. The five full-time staff people are members with connections and long experience in the community which they are serving.
They can act as advocates to help members get SSI, General Assistance or other financial benefits. Often, people need help with paperwork or an appeal or, De Bose says, “they just need somebody to go with them, to give support.”
A staff person can help members with money management, and provide payee services. And they can act as peer counselors or give a member a referral for professional help.
The over-arching issue dealt with in the Drop-In Center is the way homelessness is increasing, particularly among this more vulnerable population.
Many of the members and staff have themselves experienced periods of homelessness. To deal with this, the Drop-In Center has coordinators who are constantly searching for affordable housing and vacancies in supportive housing units throughout the area.
Staff member Emmet Hutson reports, “Finding housing for people with low income is getting harder and harder. Most programs are full or have long waiting lists. Another difficulty that we have is not only the income situation but a lot of our people have mental health issues and it’s hard to keep them housed once they’re housed without help, because people take advantage of them. It’s been hard for us to break through subsidized housing.”
The Berkeley Drop-In Center was a forerunner in what is a growing trend in mental health services. “There’s a whole new model called recovery wellness centers,” Sally Zinman says. “What we always called a Drop-in and Advocacy Center was always our vision.”
Michael Diehl, a community organizer with BOSS and a longtime supporter of the Drop-In Center, has recently been appointed to its board of directors. He talked about the importance of the Center in the community and as a model for other such centers that are being established in many cities throughout the country.
The concept of the wellness model, of peer help and advocacy, is a welcome alternative to the powerful drug industry’s proliferation of psychotropic drugs for their newly invented mental illnesses.
Along with the five full-time coordinators that comprise the staff, there are eight former clients who have been volunteering at the Center and are receiving stipends. Jeff Ingram is a volunteer who helps people use computers. When Ingram came to the Center some years ago, a staff person suggested he take advantage of the free computer-skills training programs offered directly across the street at Inter-City Services (ICS). He took classes there for two years.
Ingram says he realized that it would take a lot longer to “really get trained” but he learned enough to come back and show clients how to use the computer for job search, resumes, setting up e-mail access and such. He is homeless, as are many of the members.
Cindy Foscarini is a volunteer who takes care of the mail, and does general office work. “I’ve been a client for 11 years or so,” Foscarini adds. “At first (it was) a place to hang out. I started helping out because I wanted to give back.” She is also working to upgrade her skills. “I want to get certified in Word program at ICS,” she says.
Every day, more than 100 people come into the Berkeley Drop-In Center. “We pretty much serve everybody that comes in the door,” says De Bose. “They come in for something…. A lot are coming from homelessness, either drugs and alcohol and mental health issues. It’s hard to get everything together at once.”
Diehl reflects on the effects of the recent budget cuts that have eroded support services and reduced the income of poor and disabled people.
Diehl says, “Things are more intense now because of the general economy, but for a lot of folks that have been on the bottom, it’s like well, it don’t feel much different than it did before. We’ve been on the bottom before and we’re still there. (But) it’s harder to get out of the situation.”
In spite of drastic budget cuts and an ever-increasing need, the Berkeley Drop-in Center continues to be a community of people helping each other survive the challenging issues in their lives. Michael Diehl, with his many contacts, his knowledge of funding sources and organizing experience, expressed his commitment to the Center in saying, “I want to make sure it thrives — not just survives, but thrives.”
Zinman, who is currently a consultant with Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, speaks of her pride in the Center. “They have not changed,’ she says of her colleagues at the Drop-In Center.
“The world around them has changed, even the self-help peer support programs have changed, and become more like the system and more hierarchical, but they haven’t. They’ve just stayed true to their roots, what they were meant to be.”
The Mission Statement of the Berkeley Drop-In Center
“The Drop-in Center is a multi-purpose community center run by and for past and present mental health clients and persons undergoing significant emotional distress. The Center is a safe, informal place for people to meet and socialize, share peer and group support, take part in recreational activities, and get help in obtaining basic survival and other life needs. The mission of the Center is to empower mental health clients and thus help them improve the quality of their lives by providing them with a support network.”