In the early 1970s, Bob Brownbridge, LCSW, and Karen Mbugua, RN, both employees of Herrick Hospital, first came up with the concept of opening a participative therapeutic community for people living with a mental illness. Through their work, they saw what happened to people being discharged to the community from locked facilities such as Napa State Hospital and Herrick Hospital, and knew that without community support, many were destined to return to the hospital again and again. They envisioned, and began to create, a home-like, healing residential environment that would support people in acclimating to community life after hospitalization.
The first Bonita House was, and still is, operated in a Queen Anne mansion in North Berkeley built in 1893 by Ira A. Boynton, an architect from Maine, as a luxury home for Mr. E.A. Brackenridge. Set back on a pleasant residential street at 1410 Bonita Avenue, the house became a convalescent rest home in 1960 prior to its conversion as Bonita House in 1971.
There were many difficult, frustrating struggles to open the Bonita House residential program. Neighborhood opposition to housing people with mental illnesses was fierce. At the Berkeley City Council meeting held to vote on the establishment of the program, then Mayor Wallace Johnson swayed other council members to approve the program’s application.
Mayor Johnson spoke with great compassion about the need for humaneness in the attitudes of all citizens, especially in Berkeley, a national symbol of socially progressive thought and action. He called for his colleagues to dismiss prejudicial and reactionary thinking, and expressed “shock and amazement” at hearing arguments “based on 18th century mentality.” Two Council members stated the speech changed their minds, and Bonita House was officially established on a 5-4 vote.
The Articles of Incorporation were approved by the State of California on September 23, 1971, with original directors Dr. Justin Simon, Adelle Lemon, Louise Koel, Karen Mbugua, Marsha Pearlstein, Tom McPherson and Barbara Hall.
Initially, in addition to residents discharged from hospitals, Bonita House also housed U.C. Berkeley students from Stiles Hall (the university’s community service center), and others from the surrounding community interested in developing a therapeutic community. These students and community members provided staffing support in exchange for free room and board in the then-unheated house.
In these early years, Bonita House’s operating philosophy was based in the tenets of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, which are distanced from biologically-based psychiatry. Diagnosis and medications were de-emphasized. Clients actively participated in staff and board meetings. Staff and clients shared cooking and chores equally, and staff saw themselves as providing guidance rather than direction.
In 1972, staff approached the building’s owners, David and Eileen Stonerod, about purchasing the property. And in August 1972, the Stonerod family sold the property to Bonita House, Inc. for $85,000. Since no bank would provide a mortgage loan to an upstart non-profit organization, the Stonerod family carried the mortgage note with no money down at 5% interest.
Additional support in the early years of Bonita House, Inc. came from the S.H. Cowell Foundation, East Bay Community Foundation, and the S.F. Foundation. The foundations provided funding to pay operational expenses such as rent, utilities, and food.
In 1974, parishioners from nearby St. Mary Magdalene Church agreed to assist with the Bonita House’s development, by providing funds, bedding, furniture, home-cooked meals, and pies for holidays. This partnership continued over the next 30 years, and signaled that the community increasingly embraced Bonita House’s work.
In 1974, Bonita House, Inc. also received its first contract with Alameda County to provide residential treatment for people being discharged from county-operated hospitals.
In 1975, realizing that residents needed vocational training to establish community independence, the Board of Directors and staff obtained financial assistance from the East Bay Community Foundation and the Federal Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) program to open the Junkman’s Palace Café, located near the corner of Telegraph and Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. This café was the first vocational rehabilitation program in Alameda County for adults living with a severe mental illness, and served as a model for other restaurant training programs in the Bay Area.
In 1976, aware that clients needed more housing options with supportive services after leaving the residential program, the agency started master leasing houses and allowing clients to rent rooms. This was the beginning of the agency’s Supported Independent Living program. Since 1975, using federal, state and City of Berkeley funding, the agency has built, purchased and rehabilitated housing to offer clients an array of community living options in Berkeley and Oakland.
In 1979, the agency started hosting student interns from local colleges and universities to provide direct service in agency programs and get exposure to community mental health.
In 1981, the agency was invited by the Mental Health Departments of Mendocino and Lake Counties to open a 7-bed licensed residential treatment facility in Ukiah. A Bonita House employee in Berkeley agreed to relocate to establish the program. There was fierce resistance to the opening of the program. There were so many opposed to opening the program the Board of Supervisors had to hold public hearings in the high school gymnasium. The Supervisor that represented the district where we wanted to open the program supported the program. His support of our program resulted in a recall campaign and he lost his seat on the Board of Supervisors. The program provided treatment to hundreds of individuals from Lake and Mendocino Counties without any neighborhood disruption. The program closed in 1985, when new Mental Health Directors were hired and the program was not a priority.
In 1991, at the request of Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, the agency redesigned all programs to work exclusively with adults living with a severe psychiatric disability and a concurrent substance abuse disability, a combination of conditions then referred to as “dual diagnoses.”
In 1993, the agency started billing MediCal for services provided, creating an important additional funding stream but at the same time greatly increased paperwork and decreased time allocated for direct services.
In 1995, Berkeley Creative Living Center, a clubhouse-like socialization program for adults with significant mental health problems, merged with and became a program of Bonita House, Inc.
In 1999, the agency started to integrate primary care into its behavioral health care services. Funded with a grant from the Sisters of Saint Joseph Healthcare Foundation, an agreement was reached with Samuel Merritt College to station nurse practitioner students and their attending supervisor at the Residential Treatment Program to provide clients with on-site health screening, education and referrals.
In 2001, the agency staffed the Alameda Point Collaborative, a supportive housing community located at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, with case managers trained in dual diagnosis treatment.
In 2007, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors awarded Bonita House a contract to develop a new program made possible with funding from Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. The program, Homeless Outreach and Stabilization Team (HOST), provides housing and supportive services to 90 homeless adults living with untreated severe psychiatric disabilities.
In 2008, the non-profit organization A Beautiful Night, transferred to Bonita House, Inc. $550,000 and the ownership of a three-bedroom house on 10 acres of farm land in Knightsen, Contra Costa County, to open a therapeutic farm.
In 2010, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors awarded Bonita House a contract to operate the housing component of the CHOICES for Community Living Program. CHOICES is a Mental Health Services Act-funded, collaborative effort to create a culture of recovery and positive ‘exits’ for hundreds of adults from the County-funded public mental health system.
In 2015, The State of California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development(OSHPD) awarded Bonita House, Inc. a 2 year grant (July 2015-June 2017) under the WET program (Workforce, Education and Training). It is one of the components of the Prop 63 MHSA (Sections 2 and 3) to promote (1) increased retention of persons holding positions within the Public Mental Health System(PMHS); (2) development and enhancement of PMHS workforce retention programs in rural and underserved areas that incorporate evidence-based and community identified practices.
In 2016, The Alameda County Board of Supervisors awarded Bonita House a contract to operate IHOT (In Home Outreach Teams) to provide in-home outreach and engagements services to adults with serious mental illness (SMI) in Alameda County. The BTR-IHOT (Bridges to Recovery-IHOT) provides services to adults in the Central and North County. Central County includes Ashland, Castro Valley, Cherryland and cities of Hayward, San Leandro, San Lorenzo. North County will include Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and Piedmont.
In 2016, The Alameda County Board of Supervisors awarded Bonita House a contract to operate Creative Wellness Center for East Oakland, which serves a primarily Latino and African American population. The program is called Casa Ubuntu (House of Human Kindness) and is located in Eastmont Town Center in the heart of East Oakland.
In 2016, The Berkeley Mental Health through the City of Berkeley approached Bonita House, Inc. to operate a similar Creative Wellness Center program in Berkeley. The Berkeley site is situated in 1909 University Ave., Berkeley. The tentative opening date is in August 2018. This Berkeley wellness Center will be open 6 days a week.
In 2018, The Alameda County Board of Supervisors awarded Bonita House an 18-month contract for Mental health Technology Pilot Projects. The project scope is for qualified behavioral health providers (like BHI) and software developers to design, develop, pilot and test mobile and desktop software applications and tools for improved communication, engagement, support, care coordination and referrals for specific target populations and their service providers.