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Fellowship Club Fears It Could Become a Shell of a Program


A community center for the mentally ill is finally getting new digs, but its budget appears slated for decimation by the county.


What good is a new building if the budget to fill part of it up is obliterated?

That appears to be the sad irony for The Fellowship Club, a 49-year-old community center for the homeless and mentally ill that was supposed to be moved into a grand four-story structure now under construction on Garden Street from its current cramped digs on Chapala Street.


The center offers classes and recreational activities, and is run by the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara, which provides housing and other services to the mentally ill.

The Mental Health Association is among six local nonprofit mental health service providers facing the severe reduction of its annual contract with Santa Barbara County. Combined, the nonprofit agencies say they stand to lose 60 percent of their county funding.

All told, due to a perfect storm reportedly involving the rising cost of Medicaid, the escalating expense of providing retirement benefits for county employees, and the general state of the economy, the Board of Supervisors is being asked to carve $8.4 million out of the $35 million annual budget for the adult services division of the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services.

For the Fellowship Club, the stated recommendation is to reduce the budget to $105,000 from $490,000.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will address the budget nightmare, and will likely provide the third of three $2.3 million bailouts for the current fiscal year. But sometime this spring — perhaps on Tuesday, but probably in May — they will apply the knife for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

A few years ago, the Mental Health Association began raising money to build the Garden Street structure, which was meant to accommodate the Fellowship Club, as well as provide 51 units of affordable housing.

For the project, the organization raised an impressive $27 million, and now — despite the bleak budget forecast — construction is on track for a smooth completion.

Another piece of good news is that the housing units, three-quarters of which will be reserved for people with mental illnesses, are not expected to be affected by the budget cuts. That’s because the city of Santa Barbara’s Section 8 program is footing the bill. (The units not reserved for the mentally ill will be rented to the poor, who earn less than $15 an hour.)


But the Fellowship Club, whose footprint takes up a large share of the project’s total square footage, could ironically become a shell of its former self in a building three or four times the size of its current tiny bungalow on Chapala and Mission streets.

One tough part, said Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association, is that the Fellowship Club played a key role in the pitch she made to the donors, among them the parents of a deceased woman who was mentally ill. The couple gave the organization their daughter’s $1 million trust.

Even worse, Cameron said, is the harm she believes could be visited upon the clients.

“When I say ‘club,’ it sort of evokes a country club sort of thing, but it’s really a social need,” said Cameron, who has been with the association for 17 years. “When you put 60 people together every day, they become friends. When you’re with your friends, they know you well enough to know something is wrong. … They’ve kind of got your back.”


County spokesman William Boyer put the blame for the mess squarely on the shoulders of the state of California. (ADMHS typically receives its money from the state, and is only responsible for distributing the cash and administering the programs.)

Boyer said other counties are going through similar crises, with at least three of them — Glenn, Riverside and Shasta — threatening to pull out of the program altogether.

“The state is having to tighten its budget,” he said. “They are upward of a $16 billion deficit right now.”

Asked if there was any mismanagement of funds on the part of the county, he said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

In any case, the approaching hurricane seems poised to swallow the Fellowship Club, which since 1959 has been a sanctuary for Santa Barbarans with severe schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychological maladies.

About half of its 240 members are homeless, and many of the people in the other half live in homes that staff members at the Mental Health Association say are also slated for elimination.


Membership is free, but to qualify, people must be able to show they’ve been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

At the club, members partake in a few activities that do not require a budget: socializing, playing ping-pong, singing karaoke. But they also receive free lunches; talk with counselors; and take classes to learn life skills such as hygiene, anger management and problem solving. In addition, the members are allowed to work at the club, such as at an on-site thrift store.

According to the proposal for cuts, the center stands to lose 80 percent of its funding — most everything but some minimum staffing and the ping-pong table, Cameron said. Gone would most likely be the lunches, the counseling, the classes and the jobs for mentally ill members.

Member Richard Mansfield said he has always battled depression, but began regularly attending the Fellowship Club in 1989, after his witness of a horrific crime triggered an emotional breakdown that he said rendered him homeless. The club, he said, helped him to regain a sense of belonging.

“There was only one place in the whole community I knew I could return to,” he said. “Without this place, some of us would definitely be lost. … It’s better to have this then to have a certain population on the streets of Santa Barbara with empty pockets and nowhere to go.”

Cameron and the executive officers of the other five nonprofit organizations have been quite vocal in their displeasure over the proposed cuts. Already, the coalition has held two public rallies, and launched a Web site designed largely to dissuade the board from making the cuts.


Meanwhile, the rallies have left a bad taste in the mouths of some county officials.

Boyer said the nonprofit organizations — known in the field as Community Based Organizations, or CBOs — are acting as if the cuts have already been made.

“While the CBOs are causing a lot of distress out in the community, none of this has been finalized by the Board of Supervisors,” he said.

He added that the groups are spreading statistics with which county officials don’t necessarily agree, such as one stating that the cuts will leave 800 people without adequate care.

“That’s something they’ve just pulled out of the air,” he said.

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