Closure would make leaders hypocrites

From the Oregonian, July 2, 2008 – opinion column by Renee Mitchell

The truth was clearly spoken.

But it might have sounded so familiar that most of the 100 or so folks who attended Monday’s rally to support Northeast Portland’s Garlington Center may have missed it.

Let me recap.

But first, I’ll sprinkle some history on the truth to make it more palatable for those who don’t understand the emotionally charged fuss.

The Garlington Center is the only mental health clinic run by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare that is on track to be shut down. Its nearly 600 clients would be shoved onto the overloaded caseloads of other mental health programs in the city.

“That is unacceptable,” stated Sen. Avel Gordly, one of the state’s most effective and outspoken champions for the mentally challenged.

So how did we get here, then?

The question was asked so many times Monday that the truth finally spilled from the mouth of Derald Walker, a clinical psychologist who took over Cascadia in April. The Garlington Center’s largely minority, low-income, mentally ill clients, he said, “are not the highest priority.”

That’s why Walker, under pressure from Multnomah County, which is under the state’s thumb to quickly mitigate Cascadia’s financial problems, says he chose the path of least resistance. Who would care?

Monday, he realized he was wrong. The center is the only place in the county where uninsured clients of color also receive help with housing and jobs and access to a culturally familiar staff.

“I got some time clean because of an agency like this,” said Nabeeh Mustafa, who has been clean for 16 years after spending three decades in and out of prison for crimes to support his drug habit. He worked in an intensive case management program for addicts and alcoholics until Cascadia’s Treatment Not Punishment closed this week. “We all got some mental health problems.”

Closing the center makes county leaders gutless hypocrites. County Chairman Ted Wheeler heads the county’s year-old Health Equity Initiative, which, according to its Web site, “works to address the root causes of socioeconomic and racial injustices that lead to health disparities.”

He should already know that various displacements — from the Vanport flood to the Memorial Coliseum to a series of other past and current urban-renewal projects — have all disproportionately squeezed blacks out of a neighborhood that once created a sense of place in a mostly white city.

As a result, the black and other minority communities continue to suffer mightily from poverty, health disparities and other environmental stresses, which can exacerbate mental health issues, which, uncontrolled, can spill into homelessness, addiction, violence and crime.

But the Garlington Center has proven to be an important reservoir of hope and self-help models for those drowning in despair. Keep the center open, Gordly pleaded, “so we don’t have any more of the pain.”

Monday, with Gordly’s gentle prodding, Walker acknowledged he made a mistake by suggesting the center’s closure. He stated, emphatically: “We would be willing to take Garlington off the list.”

With Gordly’s insistence, Joanne Fuller, county human services director, also admitted her own negligence in allowing the issue to get this far. She, too, should have known better. But, at this point, correcting the mistake would need permission from Wheeler and Jim Scherzinger, of the Department of Human Services.

Fuller added this directive: “Keep telling us what you want.”

In other words: Wheeler needs to be held accountable to do what he promised: serve those at highest risk. Silence has no place when justice cries for our attention. So when truth hurts, say “ouch.” Loud and proud.