By Jay Thorwaldson
On Deadline: Glimmers of hope, but no $$ yet, for 'Free at Last'Uploaded: May 5, 2011
Glimmers of hope -- but no real $$ yet -- are on the horizon for Free at Last, the recovery-and-rehabilition organization based in East Palo Alto but serving a broader area of the Midpeninsula.
"We don't want that provider to go out of business," Steve Kaplan, interim director of behavioral health and recovery services for San Mateo County, said of the nonprofit group's financial crisis, reported Friday in the Palo Alto Weekly.
"We believe they have a value to the community," Kaplan said, adding that the county has worked with the agency to deal with financial challenges in the past. He said he would be working closely with the agency to seek ways to keep the agency afloat or otherwise able to cut back with the least impact on its programs.
But he cautioned that the county, like most public agencies from the state down, is facing severe economic challenges itself, which translates to virtually zero chance of any bailout funds from that source. The county's expressed support for the agency could be critical in attracting funds from other sources, however.
"Our commitment is to struggle with them on how to keep them viable," Kaplan said in a telephone interview last Thursday (April 28). He since has been in contact with Free at Last asking for detailed information about the group's status.
Free at Last was devastated in June 10 when it's co-founder David Lewis was shot and killed after an altercation with a reported longtime friend at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo. He had been a primary fundraiser for the 17-year-old agency, which has helped hundreds of individuals of all races break free of drugs or re-enter the community after jail or prison.
The group operates eight recovery or transitional houses for men and women, in addition to hosting recovery support meetings and helping people find employment.
But cutbacks could start happening this week or next, top Free at Last staff members said in a detailed interview. CEO Gerardo Barragan, board chair and co-founder Vicki Smothers and Chief Financial Officer Fane Finau said Free at Last will try to maintain as many services as possible for as long as possible.
But they said it needs about $120,000 a month to keep operations going at strong levels.
An "incredibly loyal staff" has already taken an overall salary cut of 2 percent and some staff members have volunteered part or all of their pay, working for free, Smothers said.
Feedback from other agencies is that the program is solid and in fact of pivotal importance to hundreds of men and women who face critical periods in their lives in terms of moving forward into a productive, free life or slipping backward into the internal prison of substance abuse or the external incarceration of prison or jail.
Smothers says if programs have to be cut every effort will be made to refer people out to other community programs. But she acknowledged that many programs have no room. That means that a significant number of people at vulnerable times in their lives will be left to their own devices. Some will be thrown back onto the streets and, perhaps, "thug lives" they have left behind -- with the implication that there could be an impact on local crime statistics.
Efforts to preserve parts or all of the current program are underway, with a group of retired fund-development experts convening to discuss potential grant funding. Other community-based organizations, such as One East Palo Alto, are also getting directly involved.
But $1.44 million a year is a huge mountain to climb in the current economic and government-budget crises.
INVENTORY OF SERVICES:
Following is a summary of the services Free at Last provides.
o On a typical day, between 16 and 20 persons visit the Free at Last outpatient treatment program.
o The group's eight residential houses include space for 16 to 18 men and eight to 10 women in three houses for women and two for men; and four "transitional houses" with space for 23 persons at any given time.
o Each day 40 or 45 clients come in for the DUI "First Offenders" program.
o From 30 to 50 persons visit the group's drop-in center for meetings, coffee, water, or space to clean up.
o There are 365 Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings a year, in Spanish and in English.
o Overall there are about 5,000 client visits a year.
o The group does outreach on the streets; provides more than 300 referrals to community health programs; and helps people find programs for housing, counseling, drug abuse and detox.
o Free at Last provides educational presentations at schools and has worked in partnership on the Mental Health Stigma Reducation program.
o Crime reduction? "We think so," Smothers said. "If a person is in a program they're not doing crimes."
VICKI SMOTHERS' TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE:
The Weekly's sister paper, The Almanac, reported on a terrifying experience Vicki Smothers had April 9 while driving through Menlo Park, reported on April 26 after the Almanac heard of the story. (See www.almanacnews.com/news/show_story.php?id=8759 .)
Not only was Smothers (an African-American) verbally and physically threatened by a man who cut her off with his black SUV and threatened to "lynch" her in a name-calling tirade in the middle of the street near downtown Menlo Park but she also reported that she was addressed sarcastically by an officer who responded to her 911 call after she had taken refuge in the Su Hong restaurant in downtown Menlo.
During the tirade in the street, she said a woman sat in the SUV looking straight ahead, as Smothers put her car into reverse and backed away.
Commentary: I've always felt sorry for people who are filled with such anger and, I believe, fear that it permeates, even dominates, their lives. As with most bullies, it has been long observed by experts that such behavior often stems from a sense of inner weakness and failure that erupts in the form of enraged blame directed at identifiable targets, be they black, Jewish, Asian or Muslim.
The fact that a woman in the man's SUV stared straight ahead suggests that she has seen such outbursts before, and perhaps been a target as well.
Clever police work, once police officials deal with the officer's apparent attitude problems, if they get around to it, might include a check of local domestic-violence offenders who own black SUVs. Proving something might be a challenge -- unless Smothers or some other witness could positively identify the person who committed what seems like a very public "hate crime."
What would be the charge? Well, as a start try reckless driving, parking sideways on a public street and creating a public disturbance by making hateful threats.