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Residents of Hazel Center allowed at Y again

Mentally ill residents of the Hazel Center, including — several criminals, will resume using the Ashland Family YMCA fitness center — immediately, officials said Friday.

Members of the YMCA board of directors voted unanimously — to revoke a three-week-old suspension of residents from the lock-down — center on Maple Street. After conversations with state, county and center — officials, board members resolved concerns about public safety, said spokesman — Michael Donovan.

"We have sufficient, reasonable assurances that there — would be no risk to our members, including the most vulnerable: seniors — and children," said Donovan, a board member for the 6,000-member agency.

But advocates for the clients said the agreement reached — earlier this week recognized that the YMCA had no cause to exclude Hazel — Center residents from using their paid fitness memberships.

"Basically (YMCA officials) admit they don't ask anyone — else for criminal background checks," said Kathy Wilde, litigation director — for the Oregon Advocacy Center, a watchdog group for the mentally ill. — "These people were being discriminated against because of their mental — illness."

Opened in June, Hazel Center is home to a dozen severely — mentally ill people, including six civilly committed clients and six clients — found guilty of felonies except for insanity. Their crimes range from — arson and kidnapping to sexual abuse and attempted murder. The suspension — affected about 10 clients allowed to visit the YMCA.

YMCA officials hinged the clients' return on two conditions: — that mental health professionals screen clients closely to ensure they — pose no danger; and that one Hazel Center staff member accompany every — two residents allowed to visit the YMCA. Previously, one staffer supervised — every three clients, officials said. Also, no sex offenders will be allowed — to attend, Donovan said.

Center residents already were subject to evaluation and — supervision and sex offenders already were prohibited from using the YMCA, — Wilde said.

Neither YMCA board members nor staff knew that, Donovan — said. He said Jackson County officials, who run the Hazel Center, didn't — inform them that they'd be bringing a group of mentally ill people, including — criminals, to the YMCA.

"They were under no obligation to do so, but from a community — standpoint, it would have been nice to make us aware of it," he said.

Hank Collins, county health director, said the clients — were no different from any other YMCA members whose backgrounds are unknown.

"To treat those people differently is just wrong," he — said. "I'm ashamed that my community would treat them that way."

All YMCA members are screened for Oregon sex offense convictions, — Donovan said. General criminal background checks are not performed, he — added.

The issue arose Sept. 2, when a YMCA member recognized — the clients and informed staff that they had been convicted of felonies. — Donovan said staff members would investigate any report of potential danger.

"Any perception that the Y is discriminating or violating — civil liberties is not true," Donovan said. "The Y has a 105-year history — in the community of serving people with disabilities."

It took some time for YMCA officials to understand the — nature of the clients and the supervision they're under. The clients who've — committed felonies are on conditional release approved by the state Psychiatric — Security Review Board.

Now that the issue is resolved, the Hazel Center residents — can resume their fitness regime.

"The folks are going to swim at the YMCA tomorrow," Collins — said.