Look who’s settling down next door

By Robert Landauer – editorial columnist for The Oregonian, April 29, 2000. Not available elsewhere online.

Parishioners are grumbling. Some oppose welcoming the would-be neighbors. Many are leery. A few are in favor.

The issue is whether Madeleine Parish should lease an 18,000-square-foot building at 2330 N.E. Siskiyou St. to Mental Health Partners Inc. The nonprofit group wants to invest $400,000 to convert the 32-year-old building into a secure home for 15 severely mentally ill patients.

Beds at this level of care — one step down from the Oregon State Hospital — are scarce. Deinstitutionalization of Oregon’s mental hospitals has created an urgent need for housing. The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear last June that states must move confined mentally ill patients toward greater freedom when that can be done safely.

Unjustified segregation in institutions is discrimination because it perpetuates unfair assumptions that people with disabilities are incapable or unworthy of engaging in community life, the court held in Olmstead vs. L.C. Confinement also may become discrimination if the isolation severely curtails life activities, such as family relations, social contacts, work, education progress and cultural enrichment. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 6-3 opinion puts high heat on states to increase community-based services.

So the neighborhood debate is a fragment of a national issue. What happens to the Archdiocese of Portland’s building, though, will be settled locally. The Rev. E.B. Painter Jr., the parish priest, will consult with an advisory council and decide some time after a meeting on Tuesday.

The neighborhood fears that surface almost everywhere group homes for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled are proposed have emerged here too: Property values will decline, safety will be eroded, traffic and parking will be congested, social services will saturate the neighborhood, the facility will be poorly managed and maintained, and it will attract unsavory people.

The presence of the parish elementary school intensifies some parents’ and neighbors’ worries. Others prefer that the building be reserved for preschool day care or senior housing services.

From this seat in the bleachers, it looks like the parish is addressing the parties’ concerns thoughtfully.

A facilitator from the Portland/Multnomah County Community Residential Siting Program has provided the Alameda and Irvington neighborhood associations all the information they requested. The parish also has invited the facilitator, a neutral party who is not an advocate of any position or result, to conduct the meeting next week among parishioners, neighbors, parents and the group-home operator.

The 2-month-old city/county program encourages early communication between neighborhoods and group-home operators. It explains the decision-making process, helps parties sift information and, if useful, assists them in working out good-neighbor agreements, says Rebecca Sweetland, program coordinator.

Getting stakeholders to the table early with reliable information usually reduces suspicion and fear of the mentally ill, research shows. There’s reason to hope that happens this time, too, because even my cursory look shows:

  • More than 70 studies in the 1970s and 1980s dealt with property values, time on market before sale, crime rates and amorphous things like quality of community life. “They produced virtually uniform findings that mental-health group homes had no adverse impact on these neighborhood indices,” says Michael Allen, senior staff attorney of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
  • Follow-up research shows that most opponents of mental -health group homes later agree that the residences have been good neighbors.
  • The proposed mental -health group home here is likely to be even less threatening than the well-accepted treatment center for adolescents with drug and alcohol problems that operated at the Madeleine Parish site for 13 years until 1999.

The closer the parish looks at the details, the stronger the case becomes to say: “Maybe In My Back Yard.”