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Neighbors seek to block new mental health clinic in North Austin

Monday, August 8, 2016 by Jack Craver

A group of neighbors in Northeast Austin is seeking to stop a mental health clinic from coming to their area, saying they are concerned about the safety of children at a nearby elementary school.

Austin Travis County Integral Care, the public health authority, is planning to build a behavioral health clinic at 1120 East Braker Lane that will offer a variety of primary care medical services focused on mental health and substance abuse, including psychological counseling, addiction intervention, basic primary care and a variety of wellness-oriented programs.

ATCIC’s three existing mental health clinics are overburdened and in desperate need of relief, explained Ellen Richards, chief strategy officer for ATCIC. She estimated that the clinic on Braker will be able to serve 30 to 40 people a day.

The nearest clinic, at 825 East Rundberg Lane, is so overcrowded that some people are working in “broom-closet situations,” she told the Austin Monitor in an interview. The Braker clinic is intended to replace the East Rundberg facility. ATCIC has two similar mental health clinics, at 1631 East Second St. and 5015 Interstate 35 South.

The land envisioned for the project is currently zoned for single-family homes (SF-6). For the project to go through, the city must approve the group’s request to rezone the parcel to general office uses (GO).

The Northeast Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association is opposing the rezoning request in hopes of derailing the project. Vanessa Matocha, president of the group, said she and others in the neighborhood sympathize with the organization’s need to provide crucial services, but she argued that the proposed location is inappropriate.

Flanked by a small group of supporters outside of City Hall, Matocha spoke briefly with the Monitor last Tuesday after the Zoning and Platting Commission voted unanimously to postpone discussion of the zoning case until Sept. 6.

She cited Graham Elementary School, across the street, as well as Buckner Villas, a nearby retirement community, as reasons the facility shouldn’t come to the area.

“We have children in our neighborhood who will walk to Graham and from Graham right in front of that facility,” she said.

“Not everybody that has a drug dependency problem or that has a mental illness is somebody that we’re afraid of, but there are those, and especially those with co-occurring problems, that just really shouldn’t be around small children,” she added.

Matocha suggested that neighbors would more warmly embrace a neighborhood medical clinic if more of them were able to benefit from its services. But those who are not dealing with certain substance abuse or mental health issues will not be able to use its doctors, she pointed out.

She suggested the facility would be a better fit for a commercial area, perhaps along Lamar Boulevard.

Richards said that the organization is working hard to reassure neighbors that they shouldn’t view the arrival of a mental health clinic as a threat to their safety. There has been a lot of “misinformation and misunderstanding” about who would be receiving care at the clinic, she said.

“Our experience in operating our clinics is we don’t have problems with our neighbors and the people we serve,” she said. “There aren’t issues of safety around our clinics.”

Communicating that message is a challenge, however, because of the negative image attached to mental health treatment, Richards continued.

“There’s a lot of stigma around mental health issues and mental illness,” she said. “How these issues are portrayed in the media has not always helped people get the care and treatment they need.”

ATCIC has set up a page on its website explaining the reasoning for the new clinic and its proposed location. It cites the rapid population growth in Northeast Travis County and the property’s proximity to a bus stop and major arterials – I-35 and Braker Lane – as reasons the site was chosen for the clinic.

The Zoning and Platting Commission did not delve into the substance of the issue much at its Tuesday meeting but instead considered whether to postpone discussion of the case until Aug. 16, as requested by ATCIC, or until Sept. 20, as requested by the neighborhood group.

Commissioner Ann Denkler proposed delaying action until Sept. 6, noting that although the neighborhood group had already voted to oppose the project, she hoped that in the coming weeks its members might be able, through further talks with ATCIC, to reach an agreement.

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