As some may recall, De Wald and her colleagues from formerly the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC) attempted to use the Rio Nido Fire Station as an emergency homeless shelter in 2008 (see my blog postings, “An emergency homeless shelter in the Rio Nido Fire Station?”, “Rio Nido residents clash over proposed homeless shelter during contentious meeting” and “Homeless update” from November and December, 2008). Shortly after enraged neighbors held a public meeting (and DeWald narrowly avoided being pelted by rotten fruits and vegetables by having the good fortune of not being informed of the meeting), RRRIC changed its name to Community Housing Opportunities West (CHOW).
To be fair to DeWald, she and her cohorts, the folks at CHOW seek to create transitional and permanent housing facilities built to code, with appropriate staffing, supervision, and access to treatment and social services (through Russian River Health Centers, West County Services, County agencies, and other reputable organizations) for vulnerable people who already live here on the River. The proposed Veterans Village facility, on the other hand, is a hulking monstrosity that violates numerous zoning and coding laws, to which neighbors objected long before Veterans Village came into the picture (See Andrew Eckers’ and Mike Dick’s letters to the editor on pages 7 and 8 of the November 2010 issue of the Sonoma County Gazette).
The neighbors have reportedly received no assurances that the Veterans Village facility will be appropriately staffed and tied in with available community services. It is also unclear as to whether this organization would provide housing to local veterans with PTSD, or move them in from elsewhere.
Nonetheless, I find it highly ironic that most people – including myself – support housing for mentally ill, homeless people. We just don’t want them living anywhere near US! No matter how many studies come out in support of main-streaming mentally ill, homeless people and housing them within our communities (see the National Coalition for the Homeless Web site), the majority of us remain skeptical.
It makes me wonder how we can ever solve the seemingly intractable problems associated with homelessness on the River.
The sad thing is that mentally ill people can come across as difficult and even scary at times. The majority of them are odd, possibly tormented, but generally harmless. I also must say that personally, I’ve had friends and acquaintances with severe mental illnesses who make many positive contributions to their communities (they often seem to be artists, writers, and musicians) and who largely succeed in their daily struggle to get help and lead productive lives.
Then again, the dangerous ones often wind up in the news for crimes we wouldn’t want perpetrated on us, our neighbors, or our loved ones. When you hear that crazy lady meandering down the street loudly spewing curses upon some unseen entity (unfortunately, I've never heard anyone wandering about loudly spewing praise and delight) , how can we tell which category she falls into? Most of us won’t take any chances.
My following two personal experiences explain why:
- A woman who moved down the street from me seemed a bit off-kilter but okay at first ... even kind of sweet. Then, she stopped taking her medications and tormented my entire neighborhood for months of sleepless nights as she engaged in loud arguments (sometimes with her boyfriend sometimes with apparently no one); ran around in the street screaming curses and chasing after her poor little Chihuahua who was obviously desperate to escape; engaging in high-speed car chases in her dreaded maroon Saturn up and down the canyons with some guy in a green truck; and hanging out in front of her apartment building accosting passers by. It took forever for her poor elderly landlords to evict her because they were terrified of her; we kept our kids on lock-down; kept calling the sheriffs (who couldn’t book her because she hadn’t committed any obvious crime); and had no peace until she was finally arrested for smacking a 14-year-old kid across the face who was only returning her escaped dog to her (though I’m amazed that the poor dog didn’t bite him for doing that).
- I also used to provide In Home Support Services to a nice lady with rheumatoid arthritis who lived in a nice, well-managed Section 8 complex in Santa Rosa. When her increasingly unstable neighbor caused disruptions by playing loud, Christian heavy metal music at all hours of the day and nights, yelling insults and threats that could be clearly heard through their shared wall, and began stalking her (he actually knocked on the door when I was there and said he was the maintenance guy), it took the complex’s management several weeks to resolve the issue. We don’t even know how it was resolved … was he evicted, or did his social worker put him back on his meds?
Of course, the above paragraphs are merely anecdotal and have no statistical validity. Nonetheless, I’m sure some of my readers have similar stories to tell. After all, we do live in an place where -- at a recent community meeting -- a neighbor complained about the Sheriff's slow response to complaints by telephone, and another neighbor brightly responded, "when machetes and propane are involved, the Sheriffs come right away!" Ummmm ... okay.
A big part of the problem is that … As far as I can tell, the law makes no distinction between mental and physical disabilities for individuals protected from housing discrimination by the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Providers of social services staunchly (and correctly) believe that most mental illnesses – even severe ones – can be successfully treated as long as the individual continues treatment and keeps taking their medications. Unfortunately, patients often discontinue their treatment and medications due to lack of access and/or intolerably severe side effects. Google "mentally ill, medications" and you'll get pages of results featuring the word "non-compliance."
A 1997 study published on Psychology Online estimates that 50% of patients with schizophrenia do not take their prescribed medications. After placing a group of 77 homeless people with schizophrenia in an “assertive treatment program” (i.e. the sort of compassionate, highly supervised type of program our social service providers can no longer afford in today’s economy -- after all, this was back in the halcyon days of 1997), the compliance rate only increased to 57%! Yikes!
No wonder residents and business owners howl whenever anyone attempts to set up a homeless shelter, treatment facility, or transitional/permanent housing complex in their neighborhood. Advocates for the homeless and mentally ill need to understand: We fear for our safety, the survival of our already fragile businesses, and our general quality of life. Alas, homeless advocates cannot provide us with satisfactory answers ... or persuade us to actually hear any.
I also believe that our lack of affordable Section 8 housing results from these fears. The twin specters of wraith-like tweekers and crazy people prevent us from providing affordable homes for single moms, low-wage working individuals and families, and people with debilitating illnesses and physical disabilities who struggle daily with chronic housing insecurity. The County prioritizes the most vulnerable (if you're a "Liberal") or most desperate (if you're a "Conservative") cases for Section 8 ... but if more Section 8 housing were available, many more of us would qualify for assistance. After all, we live in Sonoma County, a magical place where the median income is supposedly $70K for a family of four and STILL most of us seem barely able to make ends meet.