San Jose facility forced to move mentally ill patients, baffling families
Riviera Villa houses in San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Psychology Today.

    Some 30 psychiatric patients who live in a Santa Clara County facility in San Jose have been notified they may have to move out — but they say they don’t know why.

    Riviera Villa houses patients with serious mental illness, developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. The patients have been caught in the middle of a dispute between the county and the company that runs the facility, Ali Baba Corporation.

    Ali Baba has been running Riviera Villa since 2014 when Santa Clara County supervisors approved a five-year contract. The contract was extended for six months in May. Although there was an option to extend it until June 30, the county now is looking for a new contractor before the end of the year.

    In August, residents were notified they would be interviewed by county case workers and then transferred into other facilities, and possibly independent living. Many residents have lived at Riviera for years — even decades — and some are not equipped for independent living, sources said.

    At a Sept. 22 Board of Supervisors meeting, Behavioral Health Services Interim Director Sherri Terao presented a plan to move Riviera Villa residents to other county housing, including purchasing and refurbishing new buildings to house them. It was also suggested the county look for other contractors to replace Ali Baba.

    Residents’ families react

    Uday Kapoor’s son, who is 43, has had developmental disabilities since he was young and lives at Riviera Villa. Kapoor serves as the vice president of housing for the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Santa Clara County.

    “The families were not really told in advance,” said Kapoor, who heard about it when a friend alerted him to the Board of Supervisors meeting.

    “I was just shocked,” Kapoor said. “I was the only public speaker. I got only one minute to point out that this is really distressing.”

    Kapoor’s son was in a similar situation in 2013 when another downtown facility that housed about 70 residents, East Valley Pavilion, shut down. Kapoor said it was a traumatizing and confusing experience, and he still does not know why that facility was shut down.

    When the county extended Ali Baba’s contract in May, behavioral health staff said it was so they could “re-assess its needs to establish a long-term plan for appropriate housing and services.”

    They noted residential care facilities such as Riviera are important for providing psychiatric care at less cost than inpatient-hospital care and emergency care.

    Kapoor said he hopes the county will not recommend independent living for his son or anything less than 24-hour care.

    “If they have a problem with the provider, why not fix that problem? Why shut down?” Kapoor asked.

    Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez sent a letter dated Oct. 19 to Kapoor, stating the county was moving residents because of reasons “…related to business practices of the contractor.”

    “It is important to note that the County’s Behavioral Health Services Department will only move clients once a quality placement that is appropriate to each client’s needs is secured,” the letter said.

    The Behavioral Health department declined to elaborate further on where clients were being moved, citing client privacy concerns.

    ‘You don’t have to force them into this’

    Ali Baba, based in San Jose, is owned by Mustafa and Cheralynn Sabankaya, who founded it in 1974.

    Mustafa Sabankaya said the facility’s duty is to help patients manage their day-to-day lives.

    “We help them come to meals, take showers,” Sabankaya said. “Our job is very simple.”

    Sabankaya said the county notified him in August his Riviera clients would be evaluated to see if any could “graduate” to independent living or other accommodations, which he says are cheaper than their current 24-hour care.

    “I’ve been doing this almost 50 years,” Sabankaya said. “Our main concern and our wishes should be to stabilize people as they are. When they are ready to move, they will let you know. You don’t have to force them into this.”

    Lorraine Zeller, a mental health advocate, lived at Riviera for a short time 14 years ago when she was hospitalized for depression. Zeller worked with Santa Clara County for a number of years as a mental health peer counselor, and has since retired.

    When clients get moved, she said, “a lot of them go into unlicensed independent living spaces where, unfortunately, a lot of operators take advantage of them.”

    “They’re victims of physical abuse, financial abuse and mental abuse,” she added. A big difference between licensed board and care and independent living is that only licensed board and care facilities are authorized to give medication to residents, Zeller clarified. In independent living, each resident is responsible to take their own medication.

    Sabankaya said clients can make their own decisions on when to move out, and it’s music to his ears when they’re ready.

    “On the contrary, if they send (an employee) in that never has seen this person before, they come down with certain guidelines, and (the clients) are asked these very rigid, ordinary questions (to determine if they can move out),” he said.

    Wage theft allegations

    Within a week of receiving notice of the pending interviews, Sabankaya said he was notified his contract, which ran out in December, likely would not be renewed. Though Sabankaya said he has not been told why, he pointed to a pending dispute he has with the California Department of Industrial Relations.

    A former employee alleged wage theft when she was not provided proper meal breaks, rest breaks or paid leave. The state’s labor commissioner issued a judgment against Ali Baba for about $25,000.

    Santa Clara County supervisors have enacted policies allowing them to sever ties with contractors who violate wage laws. County staff said the county’s priorities are to improve and expand access to health care, not decrease it.

    Officials also said there has been ample communication with Ali Baba’s owners, and referenced the labor dispute, as well at least one lawsuit that Ali Baba filed against the county in years past. The lawsuit has since been dismissed. 

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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