After 5 years, mental health clinic finds its new home

It seems like every office accessory Jill Fuller owns is lying in a box somewhere on the floor of her office.

It is not that Fuller, the clinic administrator of Wisconsin Community Services Inc., a mental health clinic, is a disorganized person. It is just that the clinic has, after a prolonged legal struggle, made a much-needed move into new, more spacious digs on the 3000 block of West Wisconsin Avenue.

Following an almost five-year struggle against the reservations of some neighbors, the clinic has upgraded from a cramped 8,000-square-foot facility in the 2000 block of West Wisconsin to its current 20,000-square-foot site.

The clinic's old offices at 2023 W. Wisconsin Ave., were much too small for its operations.

"We didn't have any space to do the programming we wanted to do," Fuller said. "It was so crowded that the counselors and case managers had to share offices."

The cramped conditions also meant that clients had to sit on staircases and radiators to wait for their appointments and sometimes had to wait within earshot of the nurses' station. This situation was less than ideal, Fuller said, because it presented confidentiality problems and caused the clients stress.

"It really did affect them psychologically," Fuller said.

The clinic began investigating the possibility of moving in 1998, Fuller said, by looking for a building that was in a safe neighborhood, was on a Milwaukee County Transit System bus line and had parking for frequently on-the-go social workers.

After two years, the clinic found its ideal spot in an empty office building at the edge of Merrill Park, 3716 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Because Wisconsin Community Services is classified as a health clinic, it needed a special permit from the Board of Zoning Appeals before it could move into a site that was zoned for office space.

The board denied it the permit, however.

Fuller suspects it was because the clinic served mental health patients.

"It was difficult for my clients because they saw that and they'd say, 'It's because we're mentally ill, isn't it?'" Fuller said.

The clinic also encountered resistance from Mike Murphy, the alderman who represented that district at the time.

"He was quite opposed to us moving in," Fuller said. "But I think that he was just representing his constituents."

Because of redistricting, Murphy no longer represents the clinic's district. Several calls to his office in City Hall were not returned by Monday afternoon.

Undeterred by the resistance, the clinic decided to sue the city.

"That was a difficult decision for us," Fuller said. "You don't want to move into a neighborhood where they don't want you, but we thought we would have trouble finding one that did want us."

In June 2001, the clinic sued the city, alleging it was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Rock Pladl, the clinic's attorney.

In September 2002, the Board of Zoning Appeals denied the clinic's request again after holding a court-ordered hearing.

Nearly two years later, a judge declared that the Board of Zoning Appeals had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by "failing to grant reasonable accommodation" to the clinic, according to Pladl.

The city is now appealing that decision in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, but the clinic had to move anyway, simply because operations at its old site were no longer possible.

Now, the smell of fresh paint and the clunking sound of dollies carrying moving boxes up the stairs fill the clinic's new offices. Although the move is not quite complete, the clinic has obviously found a new home.

"Our clients can't stop smiling, and neither can we," Fuller said.

The new location "is very compact and well laid-out," said Terre Moll, a Wisconsin Community Services client.

Don Gant, another client, agrees.

"It's very nice, he said. "It's more roomy and more professional."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 1 2005.