The Mental Wellness Center in Santa Barbara works largely under the radar, but its impact has permeated Santa Barbara County for more than 70 years, destigmatizing mental illness and breaking down the barriers of fear that can often separate communities.
The nonprofit center provides practical mental health support, including housing, employment services, youth and adult programs, a social rehabilitation day center and community outreach services.
Its latest addition is Polly’s House, an intensive rehabilitation residential facility that will house residents who otherwise would live in a hospital long term — a costly and oftentimes unnecessary measure — or would have to move out of the area for services altogether.
The newly opened Polly’s House, located on Upper Bath Street, gives 10 residents the opportunity to move back to Santa Barbara and live in a comfortable and social environment.
The house has been made possible largely through a single bequest from Polly Mack, a former Santa Barbara resident, and the county Department of Behavioral Wellness. It has also received funding from county, state and federal resources.
“Our goal is to reintegrate (residents) in the community,” said Jeff Gaddess, the Mental Wellness Center’s residential services director. “This is a real gift to the population and people associated with them when they return.”
This is especially true for Susan, who, according to Gaddess, is a lifelong Santa Barbara resident who was forced to move out of town a few years ago for services after the Montecito residential facility where she lived was sold.
Susan remains active in the Santa Barbara community, and will now be able to move back home through Polly’s House. She requires a facility that can support both her mental and physical care.
“The fact that we have to hospitalize people out of county because we don’t have those kinds of facilities in Santa Barbara County makes this house special because it allows us to bring them back home,” Gaddess told Noozhawk.
Polly’s House is a former convalescent home and is entirely compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. These resources will allow residents with mobility issues or physical concerns, like Susan, to move around easier. Polly’s House is expected to be primarily occupied by older and senior residents.
The house is also across the street from a bus stop with access to downtown and the residents’ health services.
Long-term care in a hospital or psychiatric facility is unnecessary for many individuals with severe mental illness. The Mental Wellness Center’s residential facilities are a middle ground for residents that allows them to receive care from trained staff while also living within the community and socializing with others.
“(Residents) become very close to one another,” said Annmarie Cameron, the center’s executive director. “They form great social bonds. The support is not just from our staff; it actually comes from one another.”
Polly’s House is the Mental Wellness Center’s seventh residence — a testament to the center’s dedication to providing housing as well as the rising need for accessible and affordable housing in Santa Barbara County.
“We could probably open one a month if the funds were there,” Cameron said. “There’s such a need.”
According to the U.S. Census, Santa Barbara had a rental vacancy rate of 1.9 percent and the median cost of rent was $1,587 in 2017. The city has taken steps to build more housing units and mitigate rent increases, but the struggle remains.
These challenges are exacerbated for individuals with mental illness, for whom the lack of affordable housing can result in a cycle of instability.
Many people with a serious mental illness live on Supplemental Security Income, which averages 18 percent of the median income and can make finding an affordable home difficult if not impossible.
In order to be eligible for Polly’s House, residents must be county mental health clients and have a severe and persistent mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression or schizo-affective disorder.
The center, however, doesn’t focus on residents’ medicine compliance or create a rigid structure in the residential facilities.
Gaddess said he advocates for a “restorative, harm reduction, person-centered approach to care” that ensures residents are contributing to a comfortable environment for each other and their neighbors.
“A safe place to be in the world is key to treatment,” he said. “Polly’s House represents a place for our residents to feel supported, seen, heard and known.”