Group homes stir anger in quiet Normandy Park
Normandy Park residents accuse for-profit care provider Hanbleceya of secrecy and deception in housing mentally ill and drug-addicted clients in their neighborhoods, and were even more dismayed when told state and local authorities have no power to step in.
Seattle Times staff reporter
One person heard the rumor at a Normandy Park book club. Another got wind of it chatting with neighbors on a walk. Then residents saw strangers moving in next door.
By the time citizens of this small, tight-knit suburb, just south of Seattle, realized that a private, for-profit California company was buying houses and moving in the severely mentally ill and drug-addicted — well, it was too late.
In the past six months, the La Mesa-based company, called Hanbleceya, has opened a treatment clinic in Normandy Park, bought three homes and rented two others. The company has plans to expand in Normandy Park, and also possibly to Burien and Des Moines.
When residents sought answers from Hanbleceya, which charges about $100,000 a year per client for treatment and housing, they say they encountered secrecy and deception. What has disturbed them most is that there appears to be no government oversight of this new breed of long-term mental-health treatment that couples semi-independent living with off-site clinical care.
Because Hanbleceya doesn't provide treatment inside the homes, they are not considered residential treatment facilities, which are regulated by the state Department of Health (DOH). And because Hanbleceya doesn't provide other supervised care inside the homes, they most likely do not fall under Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) regulation.
"How in the world can this company come into our city and have these problems, and yet there's no oversight?" asked Normandy Park resident Mike Bishoff, who helped form an organization, Normandy Park Cares, to fight Hanbleceya. The group is raising money and has hired a lawyer. Concerned residents started a Facebook page, and the city created a task force.
Two suicide attempts, which brought ambulances to the homes, have fueled citizens' concerns about their safety, property values and the kind of care Hanbleceya residents are getting. Clients are men and women suffering mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and drug addiction.
This issue doesn't sit well in this middle-to-upper-income community of some 2,400 homes, where neighbors know neighbors and the police still assist people locked out of their homes or help them track down runaway dogs.
"They snuck in under the radar," said Elaine Cotlove, a retired psychiatrist who lives in Normandy Park. "I want them out unless they change, because I think they are a threat to the safety and welfare of the community."
Cotlove and others say they're not against the mentally ill living near them, rather they want the homes to be regulated.
Hanbleceya managing partner Kerry Paulson, who lives in the San Diego area, said residents are ignorant and insensitive about the mentally ill and their needs.
"You should be thanking us that they are in a place, medicated and they're not out committing crimes," Paulson said. "Being in a program, they become productive members of society."
Seller feels misled
After retiring and building a home in Missouri, George and Sharelle Leick got a surprise when they sold their Normandy Park home on Third Place Southwest in December. They were told that two executives of a mental-health company would be living there, Sharelle Leick recalled.
But when she checked out Hanbleceya's website, she found photos of her home's interior — with her furniture and decorations — being used to promote a new Hanbleceya home for the mentally ill and drug addicted.
"It was a gut-wrenching experience," said Leick, who had lived in her home for more than two decades. "It was sad, disappointing and irritating ... . We were misled."
Paulson said: "Did we post something at the local store saying we're coming? No! We don't have an obligation to do that."
When Raine Thompson saw broken shards of glass from her neighbor's bedroom window strewn on her driveway, she became concerned.
She, her husband and their two young children live next door to a Hanbleceya home on Southwest 182nd Street, where they have adjoining driveways.
A Hanbleceya staffer told her someone had broken the window with a broom during spring cleaning, Thompson said. The company later admitted a client had become upset and shattered the window with his fist, she said.
About three months before, a friendly couple had moved in there. California psychologist Ian Wolds, the husband, had just started a local practice and loved the neighborhood, Thompson recalled him saying.
But a couple of weeks later, the Woldses were gone and Thompson noticed several young men living there. She checked online and learned that Wolds was clinical director of Hanbleceya, which owned the home. "He wasn't upfront with us," she said.
Wolds didn't return phone calls for comment.
The Thompsons became even more concerned about their new neighbors when one of them tried to kill himself. On April 20 at 9:48 p.m., an intoxicated client cut himself with a knife, attempting suicide. A fellow resident called 911, and an ambulance took the man to a hospital.
A month earlier, a Hanbleceya resident at a different home threatened to kill himself with a knife.
New business in town
At the Dec. 13 meeting of the Normandy Park City Council, City Manager Doug Schulze mentioned that the Normandy Park Towne Center had new tenants — a Subway restaurant and a clinic. When told the clinic specialized in chemical dependency and was in the same building as a bar and grill, council members chuckled at the irony.
Schulze also said Hanbleceya's intention was to have several group homes in the area. The discussion lasted a little more than one minute.
While this was the first time council members had heard of Hanbleceya, Schulze had known about the business since October, according to emails.
"It went in one ear and out the other," said Stacia Jenkins, a council member. "I didn't understand these would be residential treatment facilities."
In May, residents flooded a City Hall meeting after they discovered Hanbleceya had clients living in several homes. Many assumed their city, which faces a $1.2 million budget shortfall, could just shut them down.
Normally, residential zoning limits how many non-familial people can live in the same house. But in the case of the disabled, which includes those suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, cities can do little to prohibit them from living there, Schulze said.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, religion and disabilities. The city of Edmonds lost a U.S. Supreme Court battle in 1995 over its law preventing homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts from being established in areas zoned single-family.
A Normandy Park man, frustrated at being told by the city that it could not restrict the Hanbleceya homes, complained to DSHS that Hanbleceya was operating unlicensed adult family homes.
Such homes typically provide 24-hour care and services to the elderly and the physically disabled. DSHS started an investigation in early June and has yet to determine if it has authority over Hanbleceya.
Paulson said Hanbleceya staffers don't supervise the residents, but only spot-check them a few times a day, and therapy is provided off-site. As a result, Hanbleceya homes do not fall under state regulation, he explained.
"We will confirm they bought groceries and not M&M's and Doritos," Paulson said. "But we aren't wiping their butts and tucking them in and telling them a story."
Normandy Park Cares, the grass-roots group, and city officials also contacted the Department of Health, requesting that it investigate Hanbleceya as an unregulated "residential treatment facility." The group blanketed the city with fliers that said: "We need the Department of Health to address our concerns immediately! This needs to be a community wide effort!"
The DOH said it checked the company by looking at its website and talking on the phone to one employee, who was not a licensed psychologist or therapist. It didn't visit the homes or the nearby clinic, according to public records.
Bart Eggen, DOH executive director for facilities, said his agency has no jurisdiction over Hanbleceya as a residential treatment facility because medication, counseling and other services are not provided inside the homes.
As long as services are provided outside the home — even if it's just across the street or at a nearby park — Eggen explained DOH wouldn't require a license and it wouldn't regulate the company or homes.
The residents are merely a group of people who have chosen to live together and rent a house, he said.
More than a residence
But it's not that simple.
The Normandy Park program is modeled after Hanbleceya's successful program in La Mesa, Paulson said. In California, he said, Hanbleceya owns five homes and rents three. It has split responsibilities into two businesses: La Mesa Business Associates, which purchased the homes and rents them to the clients, and Hanbleceya Treatment Center, which provides group and individual counseling, medication checks and supervision of some daily activities.
A person cannot simply reside in a Hanbleceya home, however. He or she must go through Hanbleceya's mental-health program, according to company documents obtained by The Seattle Times. And a client can be kicked out of the house for not following rules.
A monthly invoice for one client in La Mesa showed charges for health services and one-on-one support as well as for rent, including groceries and utilities. It totaled some $14,000. Hanbleceya's residential lease agreement is between the client and both the treatment center and the company's real-estate arm.
When asked about this setup, DOH's Eggen said he wanted to further investigate. "This is a new model that we haven't had exposure to before," Eggen said.
The city of Normandy Park sent a letter to DOH on July 17, appealing its hands-off decision. "Hanbleceya's business model appears to be intentionally designed to avoid certification or licensing requirements," the city manager wrote.
"I can assure you that at no time did anyone focus on developing a business model that would avoid regulation," Hanbleceya attorney Gerry Tarutis responded.
State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who has worked in the community mental-health arena for two decades, said she believes Hanbleceya and companies like it should be licensed and inspected, and state lawmakers may need to craft new regulations.
As a city task-force member, Orwall is suspicious of Hanbleceya. "What is the top priority — serving the client or generating a profit for shareholders?" she asked.
Hanbleceya, which means "quest for vision," was founded in 1979 by Moira Fitzpatrick, a woman who had suffered from an acute psychotic break herself.
Fitzpatrick expanded the business in California over the years, providing a clinic and independent living for people with mental illness or drug addiction. She sold it in 1997 and has had little involvement since. She became a psychologist and a naturopath, and lives in Seattle.
(When she learned weeks ago Hanbleceya had expanded into the Seattle area, she was surprised. When told it had stirred mistrust among neighbors, she was saddened. "When I ran Hanbleceya ... we would communicate with the neighbors and allay their fears," she said. "People deserve that.")
In 2005, Paulson and his wife, psychologist Karlyn Pleasants, became managing partners of the company. She is co-clinical director and is also consulting director of the Seattle operation, of which both are owners.
Before Hanbleceya, Paulson worked for a technology firm and owned a health club for eight years before it was hit by financial troubles. Paulson sold the business and filed for bankruptcy.
In the seven years under his supervision, Paulson said, clients in the California homes have never acted violently against another person. La Mesa police reports obtained by The Times show numerous suicide attempts and missing-person calls. Some clients have made threats, and others have violent pasts, including such offenses as battery of a police officer.
Why a California company picked the Puget Sound area as a business opportunity has to do with one person. That person — Liz Browning, of Seattle — had a mentally ill son who struggled to stay on his medicine and was hospitalized several times.
"Families get to the end of their rope" and have few options, she said. She credits Hanbleceya in La Mesa with saving her 26-year-old son's life. He still lives in a Hanbleceya house there, receives treatment and works a part-time job.
"They're not ogres or monsters," she said of the mentally ill. "They are humans and they just have an illness ... . What do we do with them?"
In searching for help for her son, Browning saw a gap in services here in Seattle.
Over the next two years, Browning, through Browning Communities, which she describes as neither a business nor a nonprofit, raised money from family, friends and others, coming up with 16 investors and more than $1 million. The money went to buy homes, which cost under $400,000 each, that the mentally ill would live in and rent from Hanbleceya Seattle Real Estate.
Browning told investors they could get an 18 to 20 percent return over three years. And in case the business fails, investors hold the real estate as collateral, she said. The backlash caught her and the company by surprise.
Paulson has said the company plans to expand in Normandy Park and also may look at neighboring Burien and Des Moines.
Exactly how Hanbleceya's program works to ensure safety, housing and proper care for residents is unclear. To find out and to build trust between residents and the company, the city of Normandy Park formed the 20-member task force. It is made up of concerned residents, city staff, a Hanbleceya representative, a state legislator and others. Fearing an unruly meeting in June, the city brought in a mediator to manage emotions.
Cotlove, 91, a task-force member who taught at George Washington University for 35 years, still had more questions than answers at the end of the two-hour meeting."It was like trying to pick up liquid Silly Putty," she recalled.
She is concerned that Hanbleceya staff have limited training and don't supervise the clients 24 hours a day. "People with psychosis don't crack up 9 to 5 p.m.," Cotlove said.
Paulson said its residents are stable and don't need a high level of support.
But the off-site psychiatrist hired by Hanbleceya has the impression that residents are heavily supervised.
"It's long-term, intensive care," said Dr. Thomas Carter, 73, of Nystrom Associates. He said he's impressed with the operation but described it differently than Paulson did. "They have staff with them 24-7 and therapy seven days a week," Carter said. "So far, the ones I've seen are unable to care for themselves."
A Hanbleceya staffer brings clients to Carter's Bellevue office for monthly doctor visits. Carter also provides assistance during intake and writes their prescriptions.
He described the clients he has worked with as "severely disturbed, and on average they have been hospitalized three to eight times over the years and it hasn't worked."
Who pays for their care is a bit unclear, too. In an interview, Paulson said families and insurance companies pay the $100,000 tab. Psychiatric services and medication are additional costs. At a task-force meeting, another staffer said up to 30 percent of the clients received state aid for medication.
Paulson said Hanbleceya screens clients, monitors their medications, requires them to attend therapy sessions, and has families involved in the treatment program.
"We do one of the most comprehensive assessment processes in the United States and maybe even the world," Paulson has said.
Hanbleceya's assessment does not include a criminal-background check, he said.
When task-force members asked Paulson for blank copies of its assessment form and the rental agreement, he told them that was none of their business.
"The evasiveness was enough for me," said Councilmember Jenkins, a task-force member. "It did the opposite of allaying fears."
She hopes some progress can be made at the next meeting, in early August.
"There's tremendous distrust on both sides," Paulson said at one meeting. "I am incensed by the lies and mistruths, the vitriol, the emotion," particularly on the opposition group's Facebook page, he said.
Even so, Paulson later told The Times, "We're not going away. We want to be a good, solid member of the community."
For Raine Thompson and her family, the controversy has taken its toll. She said it's too stressful to come home from work each day and wonder when the next serious incident might occur next door.
In mid-July, the Thompsons boxed up their stuff and moved out of the house they had lived in for nine years.
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Christinesea. Researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.