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Crisis Resolution? 

North Point Breeze and Homewood residents took their fight against a proposed crisis center to the street one day and to the bureaucratic halls the next.

In an effort to stop UPMC Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic from establishing a mental-health facility at 333 N. Braddock Ave., neighbors picketed the renovation of the former Beer World building on Sept. 10.

During the two-hour protest, about a dozen picketers waved signs as workers continued renovating the building. A few passing trucks and cars honked in support, as residents complained that they were shut out of the decision to locate the center nearby.

The approval of the crisis center was "too quick a collaboration, with too few, that does little to meet the needs of persons [in crisis,] while insulting the intelligence of the persons in the community," says Point Breezer Kathryn Romey.

The county awarded Western Psych a contract to create a phone, mobile, and drop-in center for people suffering from mental-health emergencies. The center's Web site says it can help those in crisis -- a state it defines as being "overwhelmed by grief, feeling depressed, bullied, or stressed out by day-to-day life."

The phone line -- which can be reached at 1-888-796-8226 -- is already operating 24 hours a day from the North Point Breeze location. But neighbors are concerned about plans to begin housing people in the facility as well.

Western Psych plans to add a drop-in site and temporary sleeping quarters, with between 10 and 14 beds for patients ages 14 and older. Patients will be able to stay up to 72 hours -- long enough to stabilize them and help them seek more lasting treatment. Police are trained to inform residents about the center if an officer thinks someone could benefit from its services, but staying in the facility is entirely voluntary.

Hosting the facility, however, may not be. Neighbors complain that the location, which is surrounded by warehouse and light-industrial facilities, is unsuitable for such a center. They also worry that bringing people who need help from all over the county will have an adverse impact on residences a few blocks away.

City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who represents the district and has spoken in support of the center, organized a pair of community meetings in June. But Romey and others still have misgivings about the proposal.

In June, Romey wrote a letter to the city's zoning administrator, Susan Tymoczko, objecting to the idea of "locat[ing] this crisis/emergency center in such a seedy, isolated, and blighted area. ... Because of its location ... [the crisis center] is both dangerous and disrespectful of those in crisis, the staff, and the nearby communities."

During the Sept. 11 zoning hearing, however, such questions were pushed aside, as residents were instructed to focus only on the building's use.

The building was not previously zoned to house a treatment facility. But Tymoczko granted Western Psych an administrative exception to allow it as a "multi-suite residential/office" space. The city code defines such a space as one that contains "rooms rented as sleeping or living quarters, without private kitchens and with or without private bathrooms."

During her testimony before the zoning board, Tymoczko explained that the multi-suite designation was appropriate because of "the overnight portion" of its services. She added that while the center provided counseling and other services, that wouldn't necessarily change its underlying classification as a residence.

A single-family house, she noted, would still be a private dwelling even if a resident employed a full-time nurse.

Ellie Medved, the vice president of ambulatory and crisis services for UPMC Western Psych, also testified, arguing that the crisis center would function as a residential facility. A client will stay at the center "until the crisis is stabilized [or] they can be linked to another service," she said. "We don't provide treatment. We only stabilize."

Originally, Western Psych planned to allow stays of longer than 72 hours, according to Mary Jo Dickson, who administers adult mental-health services for the county's Department of Human Services. But "budgetary concerns" resulted in "the elimination of some of the residential services," Dickson said at the hearing.

Neighbors were unconvinced, arguing that the center would operate more like a clinic than a residence, with a constant turnover in population.

"[A]ny home can have a staff, but any home doesn't have a number of people coming and going 24 hours a day," said Cheryl Hall, chairwoman of the North Point Breeze Planning and Development Corporation.

"A home is a home," she added. And unlike a home, the center is "not where people are related. They're not friends."

Judith Ginyard, a real-estate broker who has been active in neighborhood politics, added that she felt "the main emphasis [of the crisis center] is treatment."

Transcripts of the hearing will be available in about three weeks. Once they are, both sides of the debate will have three weeks to submit a formal argument to the city's zoning board of adjustment, which will then make a decision.

If the residents' appeal is denied, it's unclear how -- or if -- they'll continue the fight. "That's the problem," Romey says. "We all have work, and our jobs aren't this."

click to enlarge Picketer Don Hall at the proposed site - BRIAN KALDORF

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