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January 23, 2006
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Alexandria Council Approves Shelter; Protested Plan for Homeless Mentally Ill Adopted Unanimously
The Washington Post; 1/22/2006; Annie Gowen Washington Post Staff Writer
The Alexandria City Council approved a controversial plan yesterday for a homeless shelter for the mentally ill that will nestle in the heart of the historic downtown shopping district.
More than 100 residents turned out for the two-hour debate at a hearing yesterday at City Hall, where neighbors with $1 million townhouses spoke of concerns for their personal safety and accused the city of downplaying their fears.
The debate had grown so heated in the weeks leading up to the vote that police were called after an earlier hearing, when two neighbors got into a shouting match. No charges were filed.
The council voted unanimously to go forward with a plan to remodel an old brick firehouse on northbound Route 1 into a home with 12 spaces for a homeless population that may include schizophrenics and patients suffering from bipolar disorder, about half of whom have drug or alcohol problems.
The modest brick building is just steps away from the city's main shopping district along King Street, as well as such popular businesses as Misha's, a coffeehouse and local hangout, and the Sugar House Day Spa and Salon.
"The people we are talking about are human beings, and they are in our city and on our streets," Mayor William D. Euille (D) said. "All we're doing here is putting them in an environment where they can recover and become productive citizens."
Community Services Board Chairman Mary Riley said her group -- which oversees money used for residents through the city's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services -- plans to remodel the fire station to include 10 one-room residences, a two-person apartment and a rooftop deck. There are 200 similar homes across the country (including homes in Arlington and Fairfax) based on a nationally recognized model called Safe Haven.
Building a shelter for homeless people who suffer from mental illnesses has been a priority for the city since 1997, Riley said, because traditional shelters "don't have [the] mental-health staffing" necessary to care for patients. The facility will have 24-hour staffing and clinicians. Residents will be allowed to come and go as they please -- a fact that worried neighbors.
Riley said she was "relieved" after the vote and was not surprised at the outpouring from opponents of the plan: "It's a natural reaction. There's a lot of misunderstanding about mental illness."
Opponents gained momentum in recent weeks, leafleting the neighborhood and creating a Web site called Saveoldtown.org, which combines pictures of shoppers and Old Town's boutiques with the urgent message "Help Save Old Town Alexandria!"
"We're absolutely worried about our safety," said Craig Miller, 39, a loan officer who has a home near the proposed site.
Neighbors were further incensed that they had to limit their discussion yesterday to the architectural details of the city's plan, rather than the site's use as a home for the mentally ill. The land where the firehouse sits was zoned for multi-family use, so city officials decided no special-use permit, which would have required greater community participation, was needed. Until 2004, the city had for two decades used the site as a daytime clubhouse for 60 people with serious mental illnesses.
After yesterday's meeting, Miller said opponents were considering filing a lawsuit to block the shelter. The city had hoped to have the remodeling finished by early next year.
"What's getting lost in all this is that we've got people on the street and it's winter," Riley said. "It's very disturbing to see these delay tactics are being used."
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
For Group's Mentally Ill Clients, Art Altered Life's Palette
The Washington Post; 1/22/2006; Fredrick Kunkle Washington Post Staff Writer
For Michael R. Marra, the feel of a piece of wood, its color and the possibility of its becoming a piece of art in his hands are enough to keep him going most days.
Having struggled with serious mental illness for half of his life, Marra, 41, has discovered a form of therapy -- and a way to give back to those who have helped him at the Way Station Inc., a nonprofit group that offers a range of services to people who are mentally ill.
The organization's clientele in Frederick and nearby counties has been growing rapidly as it tries to meet the needs of people at the margins of society -- those who find themselves neither poor enough for Medicaid nor wealthy enough to pay for their own services or health insurance.
Along with another client of the organization, Donna Burns, Marra plans to donate artwork to a March 10 benefit for Way Station to be hosted by the Frederick County Bar Association, which already was planning to auction about 150 works from a New York-based art auction firm and 10 watercolor paintings donated by local artist Sonia Maher.
Way Station provides housing, vocational training and crisis management for mentally ill people with low incomes in Frederick, Carroll and Howard counties, and it supports a mobile unit that accompanies local law enforcement officers when they encounter mentally ill people in the community. It serves people with a range of mental illnesses, from moderate depression to severe cases of schizophrenia.
The nonprofit group opened its doors in 1978, when agencies throughout the country were shifting away from institutionalizing people with mental health problems. At first, the agency served about 35 people in a day program. Today it serves as many as 5,000 men, women and children a year through its residential and outpatient clinics, according to its executive director, Scott Rose.
The group wants to build up its endowment so it can become more independent of government funding, which varies from year to year. And it has sought creative ways -- such as the art auction -- to accomplish its goals. The Bar Association hopes to raise $15,000 for Way Station through the auction, which will be held at a Frederick restaurant. Last year's auction raised $11,000 for Interfaith Housing Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to increase the stock of affordable housing in Western Maryland.
Way Station reported $13.1 million in revenue -- most from government funds -- and $12.3 million in expenses in 2004, the most recent year for which reports were available. That compared with revenue of $5.4 million and expenses of $4.9 million five years earlier.
Burns, who is known as D.B., raised three children, made a living in high-tech sales and was divorced twice before she was overwhelmed by a bipolar disorder. Burns lives in an apartment owned by the Way Station in Frederick. In a room that doubles as a studio, she crafts small figurines of pregnant women and new mothers. She has sold her work for as much as $500 and is planning to donate one piece for the art auction.
"Creativity allows me -- the work itself allows me -- to step away from the pain and go into another place, another zone," said Burns, 57. "I walk away more comfortable. I walk away more at peace."
Marra, 41, said he was a teenager when the first symptoms of his illness appeared. Returning home from a family picnic, he became seized by fear that the police were after him, although he had done nothing wrong. Because there was a history of mental illness in his family, his parents sought help.
But Marra resisted. He found it difficult to admit that he had an illness that might mean a lifetime of care and medication. For a time, he lived on his own: hitchhiking, sleeping in a tent in the woods, living on what he could shoplift from convenience stores. Eventually his mother persuaded him to enter a mental institution, and he found his way to Way Station.
Marra, who has schizoaffective disorder, plans to make one or two pieces for the benefit, perhaps a dove-shaped jewelry box. On Friday he was toying with the idea of creating a box shaped like Frederick's church-dotted skyline, known as the Cluster of Spires. He also plans to open a woodworking business with a $7,000 state grant he received.
"I've told other members, 'Why don't you get involved in the wood shop and make something and do something different than sit around and drink coffee?' " he said. "It eases my mind. I feel like this is my calling, to do woodwork. And I don't mean to sound boastful, but I'm good at it."
Still, for people with a mental illness, the torment that colors their perception is sometimes so intense that it prevents them from engaging in just the activity that might relieve it. Sometimes Marra will step into the wood shop and turn to go.
"There's still times where I can't work," he said. "I can't go in the workshop and do something."
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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The Warning Signs Of An Impending Bipolar Disorder Manic Episode
Bipolar disorder - as the name implies - involves two distinct set of symptoms. One set throws the individual down into the depths of a massive depression. The other places the individual who suffers with bipolar disorder at the top of a peak manic episode.
Most everyone can eventually recognize the warning signs of an impending depressive episode related to bipolar disorder. More likely than not, individuals with bipolar disorder try very hard to avoid it.
However, for many individuals with bipolar disorder, it's more difficult to recognize the signs of an impending manic episode. After all, a manic episode of bipolar disorder can be mistaken in some cases - especially in the very early formation -- for the lifting of the corresponding mood swing of the depression.
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