Planning neighborhood projects in the city runs up against complex municipal codes, not to mention developers and officials who seem autocratic or indifferent to the interests of residents. And residents disagree with each other. In my neighborhood, those in favor of rapid increases in urban density don’t always find a meeting of the minds with those wanting to grow more slowly in order to preserve neighborhood character. A decision is coming down soon from the city council, and who knows what's going on behind the scenes? Everybody’s nervous, including me.
It's even more challenging when ideals like justice and mercy collide with fears fueled by the popular media. For instance, most individuals who suffer from mental illnesses or addictions lead peaceful lives but never make the news, while the few who commit serious crimes get featured in screaming headlines. A fair-minded community can come to believe that bringing in housing or services for people with psychiatric illnesses or chemical dependencies will put dangerous barbarians next door.
But I’d rather live beside a well-run place that treats poor people with problems than beside a UW party-animal house that treats students to beer. The statement won’t surprise many Crosscut regulars. I’ve written often about what a blessing it’s been to see people with psychiatric or substance abuse problems well served, or to get know them personally, through volunteering for projects that provide them with services.
Over the years, residents in a variety of Seattle neighborhoods have felt similarly blessed, sometimes surprising themselves with their own positive emotions about being able to feel a part of the good being done for people in pain who would otherwise be pushed to the margins. And even the most skeptical residents find that new projects under good management blend into the community over the years, as media-stoked fears of certain groups fade into the benign reality of individual human beings.
Will this happen, or even have a chance to happen, in the Jackson Place neighborhood, southeast of downtown?
A crisis diversion facility is proposed in that community, funded by King County as part of its MIDD (Mental Illness and Drug Dependency) plan. It would be a central place where first responders throughout the county can bring people who are suffering or acting out in public spaces because of psychiatric or drug-related disorders. At the facility, which would be secured so that disoriented persons don't go wandering the streets, they will be assessed, given short-term treatment (from three days to two weeks), referred to long-term community services elsewhere, and guided toward housing if they are homeless.
The project would minimize wasteful, ineffective jail time for ill or addicted nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, and reduce costly days in hospitals for others in crisis (see sidebar at right). But its future is uncertain, considering what's happened so far.
In July 2010 DESC (Downtown Emergency Services Center) was tasked with creating and running what would become a 39-bed facility dubbed Crisis Solutions. DESC leased the former site of a wholesale pharmacy supply company, a low-cost commercial property centrally located near I-5, I-90, and Harborview hospital. The building, on South Lane Street, half a block from South Jackson near Dearborn, sits on the edge of a residential neighborhood.
Community response to DESC's choice of a location was, to put it mildly, mixed. Still, the restive public meetings with DESC and city and county officials to share information — one held in November 2010 just after the lease on the building was finalized and the next held in January 2011 — were followed in April 2011 by the issuing of a Department of Planning and Development (DPD) permit to renovate.
At that point “two roads diverged,” as Frost says in his poem, and Jackson Place residents headed in separate directions. King County Council Chair Larry Gossett convened a committee of stakeholders to air local concerns, determine the steps DESC must take to keep the community safe and quiet, and draft a good neighbor agreement. At the same time, the newly formed Jackson Place Alliance for Equity (JPAE) filed a lawsuit in King County Court.
JPAE contends that the diversion center is actually a jail, which zoning regulations would prohibit at the proposed location. The group also argues that the county and the city have collaborated in circumventing required land-use procedures so that the facility might open on schedule. The legal papers from the group document extensive communications among public officials on the issue, but whether that is surprising and questionable or expected and responsible may be in the eye of the viewer. A summary of the brief is here, with a link to the full document.
A larger group of residents and stakeholders spent 20 hours over seven months writing the Good Neighbor Agreement with DESC, which was finalized on Oct. 3. The drafting committee included at-large neighbors and representatives from local entities such as a Presbyterian church, Giddens School, and small businesses. JPAE declined invitations to send a representative to the committee.
“Way leads on to way,” wrote Frost, and the facility did not open as originally planned in July 2011. Its next steps now hang on the outcome of the lawsuit heard in court on Sept. 30. Meanwhile, taxpayers pay rent on an empty building, and hospitals and jails remain the expensive, inappropriate destinations for first responders dealing with people in crisis on the streets. But we live in a democracy, and groups in the minority get to have their say — including, if necessary, through having their day in court.
Although Jackson Place residents are on different paths right now, both trajectories are at least civilized in character, which is progress in light of some accounts. The initial information meetings were “a complete disaster,” said Bill Bradburd, a community activist and stay-at-home dad who lives in the neighborhood. Project opponents disrupted efforts to provide information, he said. Gossett, who is African American, said he was amazed when "some of the whites in the group called me an Uncle Tom.”
Annie Koch, a longtime volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that opponents at the January meeting spoke of worries “about their kids’ safety, about property values.” They didn’t understand that the people taken there wouldn’t be criminals but “people in need of mental health services … who might be suicidal, or hearing voices, maybe a homeless person who is mentally ill and disoriented.” Because the facility would be heavily staffed 24/7, Koch added, “it would probably make the neighborhood safer.”
Bradburd agreed. Like most districts in and near the city core, Jackson Place already has its misdemeanor problems, he said, and a program that picks up ill small-time offenders in order to lead them in a better direction “will be a good thing.” He recalled how fiercely some of his neighbors opposed Casa Latina's move to South Jackson in 2005. There were “all sorts of dire predictions: children kidnapped, people defecating on your front lawn or sleeping in the bushes.” Now Casa Latina is considered a model neighbor, leading the community on cleanup days, for example.
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