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Rolling Out the Not Welcome Mat

By Frank J. Gruber

A woman who moved to Santa Monica from New York seven years ago made the most telling comment I heard at the public meeting last Thursday evening about "Daniel's Place," the transitional housing for mentally ill young adults that Step Up on Second wants to build in Sunset Park.

After moving here, the woman ended up living in the neighborhood. Explaining her opposition to locating Daniel's Place there, she said living in Sunset Park is "like living in the 50s."

Ah, the 50s; wouldn't we all like to live back in the 50s? Ike in the White House, mom in the living room vacuuming when the kids come home from school, and the mentally ill institutionalized.

Well, we're not in the 50s anymore. State hospitals house only the proven-to-be violent, the mentally ill have rights (including, apparently, the right to live miserably on the street), and psychiatry is beyond the "voodoo" stage (at least according to what one of Step Up's doctors said Thursday).

But I don't mean to make light of the concerns of those Sunset Park residents who fear the coming of "Daniel's Place" and who appeared at the meeting at Grant Elementary. These neighbors fear that the residents of the home -- who will suffer from serious mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disease, and depression -- could be or become violent.

The residents are especially fearful because of the many children who live near or will pass by the home on their way to the several schools in the area. As one supporter of Daniel's Place put it, we were "hearing the normal parental instinct to protect their children from the unknown."

Unknown fears, perhaps, but not unfounded. According to literature Step Up itself distributed at the meeting, severely mentally ill people who are not under care and on medication are more dangerous than the general population (although not necessarily more dangerous than others with a proclivity toward violent or reckless behaviors, such as alcoholics and drug abusers).

In Santa Monica we are unfortunately not unfamiliar with violence caused by the unmedicated mentally ill, and every day anyone who walks around the city can observe antisocial behaviors exhibited by untreated mentally ill people that fall short of physical violence.

While I believe the opponents of locating Daniel's Place, or homes like it, in residential neighborhoods are wrong, it was significant Thursday evening that about half the speakers who said that they had experience with family members who had had serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, opposed Daniel's Place. Let's not have any illusions, they seemed to be saying, there is nothing easy about mental illness.

Nonetheless, there are reasons these neighbors are wrong to oppose Daniel's Place.

For one, it is a matter of rights -- rights that reflect our values. The location, 1826 Pearl, is in a residential zone. The six patients who will live there will be human beings who are entitled to live in a residential zone just like any other human beings.

Who -- since the 50's at least -- has the right to tell another law-abiding person that he or she cannot live in a particular neighborhood?

"Law-abiding:" I suppose that's a big qualifier. What about those statistics about violent schizophrenics?

We don't punish people in this country -- yet -- for statistical predilections to crime, but even if we did, one would have to evaluate Daniel's Place rationally. Is it likely that a resident of Daniel's Place will commit an act of violence?

The important fact is that the same studies that show that untreated mentally people are dangerous also show that mentally ill people under treatment are no more likely to be violent than the general population.

The program at Daniel's Place is only for patients voluntarily undergoing treatment. The program is layered with supervision, starting with a multi-step screening process for applicants. While by law the staff at Step Up cannot force patients to take medications, they are able to remove patients from the program who refuse to take their meds.

As one of the Step Up panelists said Thursday, at any given time in any neighborhood there are residents -- abusive spouses, drug addicts, alcoholics, etc. -- as statistically likely to cause violence as a mentally ill person, but no one is giving them the kind of care and supervision that the residents of Daniel's Place will be receiving.

Essentially, at this moment in medical history, while mental illness is not yet curable, violence should be seen not as the consequence of mental illness, but as the consequence of not treating mental illness. The Daniel's Place home will be a place where the mentally ill will receive treatment in a holistic program of medicine and therapy.

Several Sunset Park neighbors bucked the tide Thursday and said they supported Daniel's Place. They did so, they said, because Daniel's place is part of the solution -- the problem being legions of homeless, wandering, deranged mentally ill. One must ask: if we don't treat the mentally ill in places like Daniel's Place, are we not creating a more dangerous situation in the long run? Once a mentally ill person is living on the streets, it's far more difficult to bring them in from the cold, to treatment.

But what about the children? Are they at special risk?

I expect that everyone is now aware -- given various scandals -- that a child is much more likely to be the victim of abuse from someone he or she knows and trusts -- relative, friend, coach, clergyman, teacher -- rather than from a stranger. Given all the mentally ill people living on Santa Monica's streets, and the rarity of their causing violence to children, it's hard to imagine that six mentally ill young people, supervised and undergoing treatment, are going to add to the level of risk.

Short of violence, several neighbors at the meeting said that they were concerned that their children will, on the way to school or otherwise, witness disturbing behavior.

This argument reminded me of a "keep them out" meeting I attended last year, when concerned neighbors tried to stop "Secret Desires" from opening on Lincoln Boulevard. One mother worried that her child -- a high school student -- would learn more about sex than she wanted him to learn by having to pass by the sex shop's windows on the way to school.

Talk about denial. If you are worried about having to explain either sex or deranged people to your children, you are living in the wrong place, or even the wrong century.

From a parenting point of view, and I say this from experience, the real problem is explaining to your naturally generous and curious children -- especially those who have absorbed those cultural and religious values we have about the stranger in our midst -- why it is that you're not helping that helpless human being lying on the sidewalk.

Try to explain "tough love" to an eight-year-old.

Look at it this way -- having Daniel's Place in the neighborhood will give you something positive to talk about.


If you would like to write to me, I can be contacted through The Lookout at mail@surfsantamonica.com, or through my website at frank@frankjgruber.net
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