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At This Hollywood Home For People Living With Serious Mental Illness, ‘Gardening Is Like Therapy’

London Odom touches a more than one story tall sunflower at the Bel Air Guest Home in Hollywood. Odom wears a bright orange shirt and the sun is shining behind her.
London Odom points out the sunflower she nursed back to health at the Bel Air Guest Home in Hollywood.
(Robert Garrova
/
LAist)
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Gardening As Therapy For Residents At Home Supporting Those With Mental Illness

Just off Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, residents of a two story mid-century apartment complex threw a party on a recent Friday afternoon.

They were celebrating their new community garden — complete with spindly yellow sunflowers and pink perennials — planted by residents.

After the DJ faded down the music, which included A-ha’s “Take On Me” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” one of the residents stepped up to the mic to say some words.

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“We are living in the most colorful place with this garden to share our whole day long with you, my friends. Thank you very much, please do enjoy this garden,” Bel Air Guest Home resident Robert Allen said over the P.A. system, his concluding remarks followed by applause from the 20-or-so guests.

A raised planter box at the Bel Air Guest Home has tall yellow sunflowers and pink flowers as well. It sits in front of a white wall
One of the planter boxes at the Bel Air Guest Home community garden.
(Robert Garrova
/
LAist)

Allen just marked his 70th birthday — he’s been living at the Bel Air Guest Home for about five of those years.

Surrounded by expensive apartments and million dollar homes, the Bel Air Guest Home offers vital support to 65 residents living with mental illness and substance use issues.

Edgar Ramírez, an administrator for this community known as a board and care home, came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1986 and he’s worked here ever since. He dispenses medications, monitors behavior, coordinates with social workers, medical doctors and psychiatrists, and more.

“I feel like I’ve been helping them a whole lot,” Ramirez said, wearing a bright red button up and sunglasses. “Jobs that not everybody else want to do, that I do.”

At Bel Air Guest Home, residents with a serious mental illness get meals provided every day and extra help managing their routines from Ramirez and his co-workers.

Eleven people stand side by side in front of a raised planter box at the Bel Air Guest Home's community garden.
The crew who made the Bel Air Guest Home community garden
(Courtesy Kerry Morrison)

Ramirez said he believes it was his destiny to work here all these years. And he says he’s proud to help people who he sees treated like trash on the streets.

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“I feel like we should not be so stuck up... because it could be you, it could be me, it could be anybody who develops mental illness and addiction problems,” Ramirez said.

Running Out Of Homes

L.A. doesn’t have enough people like Ramirez or places like Bel Air Guest Home, in part because the reimbursement rate is about $40 a day for people on Supplemental Security Income.

L.A. City Council member Nithya Raman said last week that she’s introduced a resolution urging higher reimbursement rates from the state, which are already slated to go up in the next couple of years.

Kerry Morrison heads up the non-profit Heart Forward L.A., which has the goal of transforming the mental health system. Morrison and her team organized volunteers and donors to make the community garden possible. Her husband guided the construction of the planter boxes.

Morrison applauded the efforts of Galina Samuel, who’s run the Bel Air Guest Home for some 40 years.

“They are keeping these places open with incredibly minimal resources... We as a community, we cannot lose another board and care, at all,” said Morrison, who also hosts a podcast that features leading mental health experts.

Last year, L.A. saw 369 board and care beds disappear at a time when they are desperately needed.

Gardening As Therapy

Sporting a white shirt and shiny yellow tie, resident Robert Allen showed off his prized addition to the garden: a small palm tree, less than a foot tall, sitting next to the wooden planter boxes.

Bel Air Guest Home resident Robert Allen stands next to a small palm tree he added to the community garden. Allen wears a white shirt, bright yellow tie and sunglasses.
Bel Air Guest Home resident Robert Allen stands next to his baby palm tree.
(Robert Garrova / LAist )

“It looked like it was dying, so I took it and put it in a pot and it’s growing. It’s growing. But if it gets too big, we’ll have to give it to the city. It’s a baby palm tree,” Allen said with pride.

Allen said he thinks this garden is helping residents with stress and depression.

Resident London Odom agreed.

She performed Andra Day’s “Rise Up” for guests, causing at least a couple people sitting on white plastic chairs to tear up.

Odom lives with schizophrenia and came to Bel Air Guest Home about six months ago after spending weeks in the psych ward of Glendale Memorial Hospital.

“I was in a place of hurt and distress... I had so much trauma and gardening is like therapy,” Odom said.

For Odom, it’s crucial Angelenos come together to find a way to keep homes like this open, Odom explained.

“This guy’s the tallest one and he looks straight at my door, and I think that’s like a thank you through nature,” Odom said with a smile, standing next to a sunflower having its moment in the L.A. sunshine.

It’s so tall she can touch it from the second floor. But Odom says that wasn’t always the case. At one point, she had to keep it stable with splints and duck tape. But then, the time came to cut off the supports.

A yellow poster lists the the Bel Air Guest Home community garden wish list, which includes a compost bin, a bin for cigarette butts, an umbrella, table and chairs.
The Bel Air Guest Home community garden wish list includes a compost bin, a bin for cigarette butts, an umbrella, table and chairs.
(Robert Garrova / LAist)

“And I was like oh my god it’s standing by itself. So they need to have a really good base,” Odom said. “The more [time] that I get to spend in the garden, the more I’m understanding that nature is around us and it’s around us for a reason because it’s just like humans.”

Odom said she feels lucky to live at a place like this. She knows too many people stuck in temporary housing, waiting for a space of their own to set down roots.

If you're interested in supporting the Bel Air Guest Home community garden and/or would like to donate items on their wish list, head over to: https://www.heartforwardla.org/donate

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.