A dozen neighbors gathered at a Centennial-area home the evening of Feb. 18 to express fear and outrage that two mentally ill people would be joining the community.
Northeast Portland residents confronted representatives from Medford-based ColumbiaCare Services, Inc., who plan to open a residential care home for two individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
“Why were we not notified?” Betty Englestad asked. “Maybe if we had known, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Representatives explained that fair housing laws forbid this kind of warning. Notification would violate residents’ confidentiality and, perhaps, expose them to harassment. Local residents, however, wondered if their new neighbors would be criminals, like those in another, secure facility operated by ColumbiaCare.
Administrators said they could not guarantee that residents would have no criminal background, but explained that this was not a facility for housing criminals judged legally insane, and residents will be supervised 24 hours a day, seven days a week by trained staff.
“Our clients are here for treatment,” they explained.
“What if they get out and jump the fence?”
But Ken Hurd was still worried. “Can you guarantee [staff members] will never fall asleep, and the residents will get out and jump the fence into [Englestad’s] back yard?” he asked.
“We’ve been doing this for 16 years, and in that time we have never had an instance where a resident has harassed or hurt anyone,” said Jennifer Jones, communications manager for ColumbiaCare.
“We fully intend to be good neighbors and to participate in the community,” said Robert Bailey, who will be the administrator for the home when it opens in mid-March.
Some residents at the meeting came forward on behalf of their future neighbors.
“We owe these people our respect,” said Laura Long. “We should be open-minded, not turn this into a witch hunt. I don’t wish to be coerced into a vendetta.”
Portland police Lt. John Brooks, from East Precinct, said that, in his experience, residential treatment facilities had less problems than standard rental housing.
Recovery is possible
Terri Walker, of NAMI Multnomah, commented on the controversy, saying that treatment works, and recovery is possible.
“Stigma and prejudice about mental illness–a medical illness–can be overcome,” she said.
Walker added that individuals living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than to commit one.
“We need more options for supportive housing in the community, rather than turning those living with mental illness out on the street to fend for themselves, or criminalizing them, often for petty crimes, and relying on jails or shelters for housing.”
Walker says mental health providers should provide adequate staffing and appropriate, therapeutic housing.
At the neighborhood meeting, however, Englestad expressed fear of her new neighbors. “[I’m concerned] about the safety for all of the children and also myself living alone,” she said.
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