I worked at Harbor View House for ten years, supervising fund-raising, community relations, and movie shoots. There was never a dull moment with the many film crews with celebrities renting sections of the historic five-story building. However, the real everyday superstars at Harbor View House were the residents who suffered from various levels of mental illness. They were honest to a default, often funny, and taught me many lessons without even knowing it.
The staff, no matter what department, was like family to the residents. When I walked to the post office, a resident would often ask to join me. During our short walk, she would tell me about her life and details of her day. I still remember our conversations 15 years later. Harbor View House has over 100 employees working in housekeeping, maintenance, finance, nursing, and social services. The 287 residents who lived there often felt invisible and misunderstood to the world but always had a staff person that positively supported them at Harbor View House.
Staff was protective of the residents because many had a sense of childlike innocence. Dealing with their mental illness could be very agonizing for the residents. Counselors, doctors, and psychiatrists at Harbor View House provided on-going care and medication. When symptoms became unmanaged, staff would call for a PET (psychiatric evaluating team), and the resident would be hospitalized until stabilized, often having their medication adjusted.
Isolation and loneliness seemed to go hand and hand with having a mental illness. This was heightened by lost family connections or no remaining relatives. Residents could count on the staff for interaction and guidance. There were group activities, art therapy, animal-assisted therapy, and outings for interested residents. I was lucky to have worked with activities director extraordinaire, Luanne Wolfrum. She was like Ms. Frizzle from the cartoon The Magic School Bus. With her red hair, colorful and fashionable outfits, she created activities that brought out the best in people. She was so inviting to be around, welcoming everybody through the door of the activity room with her famous greeting, “Hi, honey.” Luanne saw the residents, not their diagnosis or smeared make-up, if that was the case. None of that mattered to her. When she wasn’t taking the residents on adventures to amusement parks and museums, she was throwing themed parties. She also wrote and directed plays with fellow staff member Pat Holmes for the residents to act in every year. The audience was packed with staff and Luanne’s family cheering for the residents as they performed on stage.
Some residents spent decades living at Harbor View House. This was their forever home, and the staff was their family. They were vulnerable, and at times, the target of exploitation and crime by the public. They were called names like “crazies” and “loonies,” and told to move to an island. Some residents were challenging for Harbor View House and the community, while many never bothered anybody. The discrimination was intense, and problems in San Pedro were often blamed on the residents even if they had nothing to do with it. Community members demanded that Harbor View House “lock them up” even though by law they were free to come and go as they wanted.
Every holiday, staff including Luanne and many others decorated the facility to create a cheerful environment with Christmas trees and lights. We gathered donated items to create usually the only gifts residents would receive (offseting the fact that many would have no visitors). By this Christmas, the majority of the residents will be moved out into other facilities. HealthView, Inc, the non-profit agency that owns Harbor View House, sold the building. It had an unrepairable elevator, and residents had to be moved out sooner than expected. Sadly, staff will likely be losing their jobs before the New Year.
The residents had challenging issues that were understandably hard on them. At times, it also affected their families, the community, and the staff who cared for them. Nobody asks to have a mental illness. I hope the future holds a smooth transition for the residents that relocated, employment for the staff who lost their jobs, and a world where people with mental illness are understood and cared for humanely.
A special thank you to all the staff who worked at Harbor View House since it opened in 1967, and the many lifelong friends I made working there.
R.I.P. Walter Taylor and Joanna Chow, your work at Harbor View House will never be forgotten.
Jennifer Marquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @jenntmqz on Twitter and Instagram.