House Arrest – Neighbors Try to Stop Home for Mentally Ill Criminals

From the Portland Mercury, September 25 2008

Soon, up to 15 people who have committed violent crimes will be moving into one house in the Ardenwald-Johnson Creek neighborhood, on the edge of Southeast Portland. Neighbors in Ardenwald-Johnson Creek are, understandably, upset.

The controversial new residents are the future patients of Balfour House, a planned healthcare facility that will transition mentally ill people back into society, including some found “guilty except for insanity” of violent crimes. Milwaukie residents and city officials fought all year to keep the facility out of their neighborhood, but last week settled a lawsuit, clearing the path for the project.

Since the State of Oregon aims to build 400 more beds in community transition facilities across the state by 2011, the controversy in Ardenwald-Johnson Creek may become common as more mentally ill people find homes in the middle of Portland neighborhoods.

“People who have mental illness: Nobody in this neighborhood is against them being here,” says Ardenwald-Johnson Creek resident Matthew Rinker. “But it’s those who have a history of committing these violent acts that we’re worried about.”

The proposed Balfour House would be a 15-bed treatment facility outfitted with security cameras, a high wall, and 24-hour staff. That’s not enough to make Rinker and other neighbors feel safe, since staff is not allowed to restrain patients who try to leave, only call police.

“It’s sort of a dance that the state and agencies do, but the law is really clear,” explains Jason Renaud, an advocate for the Mental Health Association of Portland. “People with mental illness are disabled people.” Banning disabled people, including those who have committed crimes, from living in certain neighborhoods violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Renaud explains.

Not just anyone can live at Balfour House: People placed in the facility would be rigorously screened by the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB), which takes input from the patients’ psychiatrists as well as from victims. Only 2.2 percent of PSRB-approved patients re-offend, compared with over 30 percent of all criminals, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services. But Ardenwald-Johnson Creek neighbors have a hard time believing that mentally ill patients who have committed crimes should be protected by the ADA and can live safely in their community.

Mental health advocates argue that the laws are in place for good reason: If residential neighborhoods could ban the mentally disabled from their midst, the population could become ghettoized in other areas.

“The wiser route is to have houses in different communities where people could be better integrated into society,” says Renaud.

Another secure treatment facility, Faulkner Place in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood at SE 134th and Powell, also works with mentally disabled people, including one criminal. While Elaine Medcalf, secretary of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association, says she has never heard of any problems arising from the facility, the fear of mental patients wandering away is somewhat founded: Faulkner Place have called the police to report 19 different “walk-offs” since 2006. In every case, police returned the patient without incident.

“Since often people who really need mental health care don’t get treatment, they probably already have people who are mentally ill walking around their neighborhood,” points out Patty Wentz, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.