Screenshot taken from Google Street View.
The Long Beach City City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a conditional use permit that will allow for the operation of a mental health urgent care facility just south of the city’s Cal Heights neighborhood.
The approval will allow the Star View Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center to commence with operations at its soon-to-be location on 32nd Street between Long Beach Boulevard and Elm Street. The private entity will provide the city with a much-needed asset to supplement its municipal mental health facilities but without the annual costs.
The vote came after hours of discussion and testimony by members of the public who endured the process to voice their support and dissent for the proposed project.
Who owns the property located on the 3200 block of Long Beach Boulevard has been the point of contention and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit as lawyers representing Star View and those representing Dr. Khaled A. Tawansy spar over who truly holds the rights to the land and thus the ability to develop on top of it.
Tawansy, represented by the Law Offices of Douglas Otto, claims he has an active lease in the building in which the planned mental health facility will be located. Otto, who also serves on the Long Beach Community College District Board of Trustees, was not present for the meeting but attorney Ben Jasper spoke on behalf of the firm.
Jasper contended that Tawansy has a lease that states he is “welcome to stay there as long as he pays rent” and that the if the council voted to approve the conditional use permit sought by Star View it would forever change the building that he now operates out of. He noted that a trial to settle the ownership issue was scheduled for September but it could take years to complete.
Rendering courtesy of Star Behavioral Health Group.
“We’re not for mental health, we’re not against mental health, we’re not taking a position at all on that,” Jasper said. “All we’re asking of this city council is that it delay this proceeding until after the court system has determined who the true owner of the property and determine whether or not Stars has a valid lease to the property that will allow their development of the city. If they don’t have a proper lease, they don’t have a right to develop the property.”
Larry Cagney, a lawyer from the law firm Krieger and Krieger, which is representing Star View, stated that the deed had actually transferred hands twice since Tawansy last had a legal right to the property and that it would soon be settled in the Long Beach courthouse.
“The good news is that’s happening somewhere else. That’s happening at 275 Magnolia Avenue at the superior court,” Cagney said. “Those proceedings are underway, they’re on track for an orderly resolution and there’s no reason for this body to delve beneath and behind the record title to this property to weigh in on what we believe to be far fetched claims by Dr. Tawansy that he owns the property.”
While the ownership may be decided by a judge, the public examined the merits and moral obligations of hosting such a site near a residential neighborhood.
Two separate petitions were submitted to the council with 500 people signing in opposition to the proposed mental health facility and 618 signing on in support.
Star Bridge’s urgent care facility would be a 24-hour outpatient operation that would serve to bridge the gap in the city’s current mental health services. Long Beach Director of Health and Human Services Kelly Colopy noted that the city’s mental health center closes at 5:00PM daily and is closed on the weekends, something that could leave those experiencing a mental health crisis without a place to go in the city.
“When someone is in crisis, and the urgent crisis center could be the space that they could go to kind of deescalate the crisis and kind of attach to the department of mental health services from there,” Colopy said.
Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said that the facility would give Long Beach Police Department officers another avenue to engage with what he said has become a growing trend of mental health issues that the department has encountered in its patrols. The center, he said, would serve as an intermediate step and supplement the additional training officers are undergoing to ensure they can better handle situations with persons experiencing mental health issues.
A minority of those in attendance, including some co-appellants, spoke against the project, stating that it would draw a dangerous concentration of people experiencing mental health issues to the neighborhoods where they raise their children. They asked the council to block the project or consider designating it to another area.
Dozens of other residents lined up to share their own stories regarding personal struggles with mental health issues or friends and family who had dealt with mental illness or had succumbed to it due in part to lack of resources.
Kathy Parsons, a former city employee and current employee with Star Bridge, cast herself as the “face of mental illness.” She said she has suffered for 40 years and through the grace of insurance, a supportive family and her job she was able to fight through her bouts and stay off the streets, a reality that can strike others dealing with mental health issues.
While much of the night was dominated by dialogue suggesting the facility would mainly service the homeless, Parsons suggested otherwise. Before they made their vote, she asked the council to consider the statistic that roughly 20 percent of people will be affected by mental health issues during their lifetime.
“Mental diseases are like cancer. It’s blind, it affects the poor, it affects the wealthy, people with PhDs, people who are illiterate,” Parsons said. “It knows no color, no race, no ethnicity. It doesn’t care about your gender or your age.”
The facility will provide a space for persons to go to other than emergency rooms, which often struggle to find beds for those suffering mental health crises. It will not provide drug detox services and will limit a person’s stay to 23 hours and 59 minutes so to not serve as a de facto homeless shelter. It will also require security guards on-site during all operations and will be prohibited from releasing patients onto the street.
May is Mental Health Month, and that did not appear to be lost on the council. Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce tearfully recalled her mother’s struggles with mental health issues and Eighth District Councilman Al Austin joined others in calling for compassion for those in need before placing their votes in support of the project.
“I think it was mentioned that 10 percent of those participating or who would be benefiting from the services of this facility are homeless, and that’s unfortunate,” Austin said. “But I think that the other number we have to pay attention to is the 90 percent that do have homes, and where are they going? They’re your neighbors. They’re your family members.”