Gerardo Cornejo hit rock bottom a year and half ago. He was living on the streets, had been addicted to drugs – namely crack cocaine – for 13 years and had not seen his son and two daughters in months.
A social worker told him that if he ever wanted to see his son, his youngest child, he needed to turn his life around. He was directed to many substance abuse programs, but the one that worked for him was the Mission Council, he said.
Today he is three months away from graduating from the program that he said helped him stay sober for a year, find a job and win joint custody of his son.
“They changed the way I see life,” Cornejo said.
But Cornejo will be one of the program’s last graduates.
The Mission Council on Alcohol Abuse for the Spanish Speaking, established in 1978, will close its doors on June 30, having lost funding from the cash-strapped San Francisco Department of Public Health. The council is one of the the first of many likely casualties as the city struggles to close a $522 million budget gap.
“It’s like they are throwing away 32 years just like that,” said Isaura Reyes, a receptionist at Mission Council.
Despite its name, the council provides a wide range of services. While it works mainly with substance abuse, it also offers programs on anger management and domestic violence.
The Mission Council has 40 staff members in two branches: 820 Valencia St. focuses on individual counseling and 472 Valencia St. focuses on family counseling. Collectively, they serve about 1,000 people a year, according to Jose Luis Aguirre, the interim executive director.
“I think the city is moving away from funding smaller and mid-size agencies and focusing on the larger ones,” Aguirre said.
Gregg Sass, the chief financial officer for the Department of Public Health, would not comment specifically on why the Mission Council is losing funding.
“I do know that the RFP [request for proposal] process and funding decisions were made very carefully and thoughtfully to make sure that services were preserved to the greatest extent possible — in the context of limited funding,” he said in an email.
Aguirre argued that the $630,000 the Department of Public Health will save by closing the center is nothing compared to how much the city will spend if its patients go to General Hospital instead.
“They are not thinking long term,” Aguirre said.
The council currently receives all its funding from the city except for the client fees in earns from DUI programs, according to Aguirre.
Roberto E. Alfaro, a counselor for 10 years, said his biggest concern is that his clients will not find other bilingual or multicultural services.
“To me, the city is saying they don’t care about the Latino population,” he said about the city’s decision not to renew the council’s funding.
Sources at the Mission Council said they have heard some of their clients would be split between the Iris Center at 333 Valencia St., and Instituto Familiar de la Raza at 2919 Mission St.
Angela Green, the executive director for the Iris Center, which provides counseling to women, said the center would be able to welcome women patients and their families although it would put a strain on the facility.
Others are not as well equipped: Instituto Familiar de la Raza, which deals with health issues generally, currently has a six-month waiting list for some of its programs and doesn’t provide substance abuse counseling.
Some of the Mission Council’s clients said they have tried other programs but found the council’s far more professional and personal.
Kenya Dominguez has been going to the Mission Council for two months for alcohol abuse treatment. She likes it because they treat her with respect and provide child care, she said.
For Dominguez, the Mission Council worked for her because the staff is patient and “understand that you have other things going on in your life, and help you with it. ”
“It’s like a family,” she said. “The judge can tell you to go to a certain place, but if you don’t like it you won’t go. They [Mission Council] make you want to go.”
“I wouldn’t be sober right now if it wasn’t for them,” said Teddy Pinto, who began going voluntarily to the Mission Council two months ago “It is a place where people know you.”
Pinto said he chose the Mission Council because some of the staffers have known him since he was a teenager.
“How can they close the center?” Pinto asked.” This place is for the families.”
Cornejo, now a volunteer at the council, said other places don’t have the same one-on-one approach. “They treat you like a number” there, he said.
Vanessa Padilla, the program director at Mission Council, agreed, saying that the Mission Council is one of the few programs in San Francisco that does not turn down clients. At the outpatient program some of the counselors have up to 200 cases every year.
Because he felt treated badly at other centers, Cornejo stopped going. He described himself as shy.
When he began going to the Mission Counsel he felt comfortable with the counselors who spoke his language. He felt they had a genuine interest in his well being, he said.
After recovering Cornejo said he began volunteering because he found knowing others who faced the same challenges had helped him.
“It really helps out the conversation and opening up, ” he said.
Research by the Mission Council last year showed only a ten percent rate of recidivism at the center, according to Aguirre.
Michelle Torrez, who has been sober since she began going to the Mission Council two months ago, said she was upset when she overheard in the lobby that the center was closing.
“I want to go to a bar right now,” she said.