Percy Village aims to help residents gain basic skills so they can transition to independent living. Photo by Yesenia Thomson
Residents of Percy Street, a quiet cul-de-sac in Boyle Heights, lived comfortably for years with the elderly residents who once occupied Percy Village, a two-story brick building that takes up three quarters of their residential block.
But now, some neighbors are up in arms about what they view as the transformation of their neighborhood with the conversion and expansion of the facility into a transitional home for the mentally ill.
Today, the Gateways Percy Village Adult Residential Facility is one of the largest community-based residential mental health facilities in Los Angeles, housing up to 136 adults. Most residents come there from acute psychiatric settings ”“ mainly locked facilities.
Neighbors who live in the tidy homes and duplexes on surrounding blocks are concerned both about the sheer number of residents with mental illnesses and their lack of supervision.
Until 2005, Percy Village was a rest home for the elderly. Because residential facilities for the mentally ill fall into the same zoning category as facilities for the elderly, no special permits or public hearings were required when the change was made, according to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.
While some neighbors are sympathetic to the facility’s goal of integrating its residents back into society, they don’t believe it has an effective program to address neighbors’ concerns.
Some community members say facility residents create a nuisance in the neighborhood and that management does not address their complaints.
“These patients are not being supervised, and that’s my major complaint,” says Sylvia Duarte, a Boyle Heights native who unsuccessfully appealed a 30 percent increase in the number of beds.
Residents from Percy Village can usually be seen day and night in front of the building. Some smoke on the building’s front steps and wheelchair ramp.
Others walk up and down the neighborhood streets, visiting stores, sometimes attempting conversations with local children at the nearby Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library or panhandling at a nearby gas station.
“There’s plenty of times where they’ve come into my yard if I leave my gate open, and we have to escort them out,” Duarte says.
Percy Village houses people with psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and major depression, according to Kimberly Guajardo, a psychologist who is Percy Village’s program director. The facility is operated by Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center.
Guajardo says at Percy, “Our clients are given the opportunity to live in the least restrictive environment, which is a philosophy of the Department of Mental Health.”
The treatment goal is to graduate residents to lower levels of services and care. But some neighbors say that while the residents make the transition to more independent living, the neighborhood must live with the consequences.
Duarte, along with other members of the Neighborhood Watch program at Resurrection Church, has documented problems with the facility’s residents for years. She says she has called police and contacted the facility repeatedly. A couple dozen other neighbors joined her to protest the expansion of the facility at a public hearing last year.
Duarte shared pages of emails and photographs that she has sent to Percy Village, chronicling incidents such as drug deals, panhandling and urinating in public. But she claims nothing has ever been done about the problems.
Guajardo says the facility has a number for the community to call regarding issues. But residents say their calls go unanswered. There was no voicemail or response when a Boyle Heights Beat reporter attempted to call the number recently.
Employees of nearby businesses, such as the AM/PM on the corner of South Lorena Street and Whittier Boulevard, say they have also experienced incidents involving residents from Percy Village. Manager Javier Zamora says Percy residents have stolen from the store three or four times in recent months ”“ usually packs of cigarettes taken from behind the counter.
Zamora says they panhandle at the gas station day and night. “They harass my customers,” he says. He says he files police reports, but nothing ever happens.
Los Angeles Police Department Lead Officer Roger Medina says while police take the situation seriously, the question is how to control it. “Percy has an open door policy, and these people are not incarcerated,” says Medina.
Medina says the crimes Percy residents commit are usually petty thefts or drinking in public, but that Percy does not kick out residents for committing these acts.
“NIMBY” or Not in My Backyard
Leo Hernández, 64, lives next door to Percy Village and takes care of her young grandchildren. Her biggest concern is the safety of the children. “They talk to the kids, and I don’t like it,” she says.
Controversy over how and where the mentally ill should live goes beyond this Boyle Heights neighborhood. Problems can come up in any community where treatment centers co-exist with private homes. But such situations, where neighbors must live beside unwanted commercial properties, such as factories or halfway houses, are more common in low-income neighborhoods.
Community-based facilities for the mentally ill date back to the 1960s, when the government began to close psychiatric hospitals in large numbers.
Over the years, the practice of deinstitutionalization has been debated, because it has often taken place without the promised follow up, such as structured living arrangements or adequate treatment services.
Programs such as Percy attempt to give residents a way to gain basic skills so they can transition to independent living.
Guajardo says it’s a question of basic human rights. “Our clients are diagnosed with mental illnesses,” she said. “They are not criminals. Like anybody who has any type of a medical illness, they still deserve to have fresh air, freedom and to go to the store.”
While some of Percy Village’s residents do panhandle, Guajardo says sometimes neighbors confuse residents of Percy with homeless people. Many neighbors disagree and say Percy residents stand out from anyone else in the neighborhood.
In addition to panhandling, neighbors say, Percy residents can be seen buying and smoking drugs in front of a local store. Guajardo doesn’t deny the possibility.
“Because of the clientele we serve,” Guajardo admits, “frequently they have histories of substance or alcohol use, but that’s not what we’re treating.”
Percy provides one-on-one counseling, round the clock nursing care and group therapy sessions. The facility allows residents to come and go freely until a 10 p.m. curfew. The average stay varies depending on the severity of an individual patient’s illness, but is usually 12 to 14 months. “We’re looking to see if clients are really ready to be in the community, ready to live on their own,” Guajardo says.
Neighbors question whether residents are capable of interacting responsibly with the community during this transition.
Often Percy residents can be seen inside or in front of Stevenson Library, where many children spend their afternoons. Librarians say they do not have issues with the Percy residents, but are aware that they often hang out outside the library, along with children.
Officer Medina says he understands how it could cause concern, but says ‘there have been no incidents to my knowledge involving kids.”
A neighbor, Malinda, who wouldn’t provide her surname, say the Percy residents are sometimes teased by neighborhood teens. She lives near the library and has seen teens throw bottles at Percy residents and make lewd gestures.
Guajardo confirms that this has been a problem. “We’ve had to call the police several times because we’ve had a couple of clients who have been assaulted by neighbors.”
According to police reports, in the first nine months of this year, police responded to 30 calls regarding Percy Village, including calls from either inside the facility or from neighbors. Twenty-two of those calls were about missing persons.
Percy Village used to hold quarterly community meetings to address neighborhood concerns, but some neighbors claim they weren’t informed about the meeting times. Those meetings are now held annually. Guajardo says this is because of low turnout. She adds, “It’s kind of difficult to say what neighbors actually think.”