Thursday, December 23, 2004
Yellow caution tape covers wooden beams outside, but inside Rippling River’s community room, a handful of residents breathe deeply and listen to soothing flute music.
It’s been a stressful year for the seniors and disabled people who live in the low-income apartments on East Carmel Valley Road. Last fall, at the request of the residents, County Supervisors directed the health department to survey health and stress levels at Rippling River, and to start classes to teach techniques for managing stress.
“We’ve had people getting very sick during all of this, and a couple people have died,” says Merri Bilek, a Rippling River resident who was recently appointed to sit on the board of the county Housing Authority. “We felt it was really important that the Health Department get a handle on what exactly has been going on with the residents, and that they come in and work on stress-relieving things the residents can do.”
The survey results will be released to the public in mid-January.
Today is the final class for the residents. For the past six weeks, Nancy Bartell, a licensed therapist who practices in Carmel, and Craig Waddell, a psychiatric social worker for the county, have instructed Rippling River residents about ways to recognize stress and manage it. Today, the small group sits in a rough circle, in wheelchairs, wooden chairs, and on a couch.
“How are you feeling, emotionally?” Bartell asks.
Mike Ryan, an older man who walks with crutches says he’s feeling “very good” and looking forward to the annual Christmas party later in the week.
Jane Wheeler, who uses a wheelchair and is almost always accompanied by her service animal, a cat named Quincy Q, says she’s keeping herself busy with her Secret Santa project. She says wrapping presents relaxes her when she starts to feel stressed.
Chris Sauer, a tiny blond woman, also in a wheelchair, types a message into a machine the size of a paperback book. It spits out a printed version of her words, which Bartell reads: “The day after our last meeting, I found out my mom has a spot on her lung. I’m not sure what it is.”
Sauer’s mom is a two-time cancer survivor. During World War II, she played piano in an all-girl band that used to perform at USO’s.
Bartell reviews the relaxation techniques they have learned.
“We worked on breathing—three complete breaths,” she says. “Meditation with a mantra, or looking at a candle. Going to your secret place.”
They also worked on guided imagery, learned how to deal with chronic worrying and negative thoughts, and autogenic training: “You imagine, ‘my arm is heavy, loose and relaxed,’” Bartell explains, and then your other arm, your legs, and so on. This week, Bartell brought a CD that sounds like a rain forest—the splattering of rain, faint thunder, birds, frogs.
Ryan rests his head on the back of his chair, and closes his eyes. Wheeler reclines her wheelchair.
“All we need is the fireplace,” she says, pointing to the empty one behind her, “And a cup of hot chocolate. And a good book. I can actually feel the heat on my back.”
After the class is over, the attendees say they—and the other Rippling River residents—have learned how to manage stress better. They’re no longer shy about taking three deep breathes in the middle of a residents’ meeting when they begin to feel anxious. And they are confident that conditions at the facility—not to mention stress levels—will improve in 2005.
“I feel like we’re over the big hump now,” Wheeler says. “We’ve got two new commissioners representing us, who are on our side—that’s three out of seven. We can’t be bulldozed anymore.”
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It’s been a trying year for Wheeler and the rest of the group.
A year ago, the Housing Authority tried to move residents out. The quasi-governmental agency said the buildings had deteriorated past the point of restoration. The solution, they maintained, was to raze the low-income apartments and relocate the residents. And despite stiff resistance from County Supervisors, Carmel Valley community members, and Rippling River residents themselves—and even monetary donations and offers from local contractors to donate their time and skills to work on the property—the Housing Authority seemed determined to demolish the 70-unit complex and move the residents.
The price, according to the Housing Authority, to rehab the buildings continued to climb, upwards of $11 million dollars.
Supervisor Dave Potter, who represents Carmel Valley and owns a construction company, repeatedly told the Housing Authority that the price tag was grossly inflated. Potter appointed John Dalessio, a retired civil rights attorney and outspoken advocate for the Rippling River residents, to the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners. Dalessio also continued to insist the estimates were hugely inflated. But he was the lone voice on the commission for keeping the residents at Rippling River.
In late July, the Housing Authority announced that its insurance carrier would no longer cover the liability, and that notices of eviction would be forthcoming.
Residents asked the County Supervisors to step in, and the Supervisors asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to survey the facility. The Corps of Engineers report told a different story. For $2.7 million, it concluded contractors could repair the buildings. There would be no need to evict residents.
Dalessio and others called for an investigation to determine if the Housing Authority intentionally inflated the price to repair the apartments. So far, no one’s stepping in to study this mess.
A couple weeks ago, County Supervisors approved two new tenant commissioners to sit on the Housing Authority’s board: Bilek, the outgoing president of the Rippling River Residents Association, and Richard Rangel, who recently moved out of Rippling River. Now he lives in Salinas, in a different public housing facility. “I’m still in the system,” he says.
“My wife and I lived at Rippling River for a year and a half before I asked to transfer to another complex,” he says. Rangel has high blood pressure, and underwent open-heart surgery last year. “I couldn’t stand the pressure, the stress of not knowing if we would have a home in a month.
“I may not live there anymore, but my heart is still with the residents.”
Now, with Rangel and Bilek joining Dalessio, the residents will have three sympathetic votes on the commission instead of only one.
“There are three of us, now,” Bilek says. “While we don’t have a majority yet, we’re going to have much more of a presence on the Board. We’re certainly looking at what we can do to help Rippling River, but we’re also looking at what we can do for the other 4,900 residents of the Housing Authority properties across the county.”
In January, the commissioners will meet to discuss funding for the needed repairs and to establish a time frame for what needs to be done to save Rippling River.
The residents are hopeful, Bilek says, but they’re not letting their guard down yet.
“The Housing Authority has thrown us some real surprises,” she says. “We need to stay on top of that.”