The families of 19 vulnerable patients living in a long-term mental health care facility in Co Cork have said the HSE's unexpected decision to close the centre is causing huge distress and anxiety.

A public meeting in Midleton tonight will hear calls for the HSE not to close the service provided by the Owenacurra Centre.

The HSE, however, has said the building where the residents live is no longer fit for purpose.

It is to shut by the end of October, and residents are to be relocated to other facilities across the county.

But the families of residents have said the decision is brutal and causing huge distress to vulnerable people who consider the Owenacurra Centre their home.

The 24-bed single-storey centre, built around a planted, central courtyard, is located close to Midleton town centre and to facilities such as the doctor, library, shops, and services.

On a busy market day in the east Cork town last Saturday, Mary Hurley and Maureen O'Sullivan were handing out leaflets advertising tonight's public meeting at the Midleton Park Hotel.

The HSE unexpectedly announced in June it was to shut the Owenacurra Centre, where Mary's sister has been a resident for over 25 years, and where Ms O'Sullivan's brother has lived for the past decade.

The decision has come as a shock to residents and their families.

The latest review by the Mental Health Commission had found that although the building "presented as old and in need of some repairs", it had commended patient care.

Mary Hurley

Ms Hurley says the Owenacurra centre is not just a unit - it is her sister's home.

"She is extremely distressed as are all the other residents, this is just brutal," she said.

She added: "This works beautifully and it is the model of care that is talked about in Vision for Change and Changing the Vision - it is an integrated community service, right in the middle of Midleton, everything is within five minutes walk for these residents who are, lets face it, very often on medication and they find moving around difficult.

"So this building and this location is just crucial for their rehabilitation.

"We want the unit and the service to remain, works need to be done on the building, we know that, plans can be made to do temporarily re-home people while they are repairing the building or indeed building a new premises.

"They are a very vulnerable group, they don't speak up for themselves, they can't speak up for themselves, they are very silent, they will do whatever they are told, and that is why as family members we feel we have to come out and speak for them."

Maureen O'Sullivan

Maureen O'Sullivan says the last ten years of her brother's life have been his happiest.

"My brother really doesn't mind whether his room is going to be a few millimetres bigger, that's not the issue, the issue is the service which for a lot of people has been life-saving," she said.

"The idea of shutting it down is incomprehensible. It is a regressive step and it is out of line with the HSE's own policy"

She added: "He has friends for the first time in his life, they are people who share some of his issues, they know a lot of the same people, they share life experiences and that is so essential to everybody for their happiness, and if lockdown has taught us anything it is how deeply isolation can affect people".

The centre, she says, is unique because people are not hidden away.

"The building is iconic, it is opposite the market, everybody sees it, so there is no shame, so these people are accepted as human beings equally to everybody else, in line with their obligations on the protection of people with disabilities, so it is a centre that brings great happiness and really stabilises people's lives.

"The idea of shutting it down is incomprehensible. It is a regressive step and it is out of line with the HSE's own policy," she added.

The HSE has strongly defended its decision, saying the building is not fit for purpose.

In a statement, it said that it was "a difficult decision" to close facility, adding that this "was not our original plan for the valuable service at the Owenacurra Centre".

Construction experts for HSE Estates "discovered that the building is in a very poor condition with major defects.

They said no amount of expenditure could bring the building to an acceptable standard.

"The advice from construction experts led us to take the difficult but necessary decision to close the centre. We have reviewed all options for the centre, and every option involves a complete demolition of the existing building rather than a phased refurbishment."

They said a process of consultation is now under way after which residents will be moved on a phased basis to other HSE facilities in the county.

The public meeting being held by the Friends of the Owenacurra Centre will take place at the Midleton Park Hotel tonight.

Separately, the HSE is due before the Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health tomorrow to answer questions about its decision to shut the facility.