Seattle process: Neighbors diverge on a diversion facility

An emergency treatment facility for people in psychiatric or drug crises on the streets was to save taxpayers the high cost of hospitals and jails. Some skeptical residents reached a Good Neighbor Agreement with DESC. Others filed an opposing lawsuit.

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Proposed site of DESC's Crisis Diversion Center at 1600 S. Lane. The street rises east past family residences. Half a block to the west is busy S. Jackson Street.

An emergency treatment facility for people in psychiatric or drug crises on the streets was to save taxpayers the high cost of hospitals and jails. Some skeptical residents reached a Good Neighbor Agreement with DESC. Others filed an opposing lawsuit.

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.

Attitudes about that organization began to improve in the course of working out a good neighbor agreement, said Gossett, even though some residents had started out saying that Casa Latina's clients would be “roaming and violent and drunk all over our streets.” Similarly, neighbors with concerns about the Crisis Solutions Center agreed to “sit down and work it out, win-win-win.” The group reached out to JPAE, assuring them that even though they were litigating against the project “we didn’t have any problem about them being involved.”

But JPAE felt that the good neighbor agreement process is “a waste of everyone's time ...when the siting of this facility is not legal.” The group's Web site urged residents “NOT to participate in any sort of good neighbor agreement, as they are not legally binding.” As regards the agreement itself, JPAE member Kristin Wall said it seemed “pre-drafted and forced on the community.”

Wall said that members of JPAE, which was “formed to assure that the city uses correct permitting processes related to construction projects in our community,” are “extremely sensitive to mental illness. Many are directly or indirectly affected by mental illness in family members and friends.” But “Within half a block of the planned site is the historic Japanese Cultural and Community Center,” wrote Wall in an email, “which houses a school for more than one hundred children.” (JCCC leaders, who like JPAE had declined to send a representative to the good neighbor agreement committee, did not wish to comment for this article.)

In addition, wrote Wall, individuals brought to the facility will in many cases have first been picked up and held by the police. This fact, in combination with other factors such as plans for security locks and rules that will prevent people in treatment from leaving the premises without consulting staff, convinced JPAE that "the facility is not a hospital, but is a jail or more akin to a jail and cannot be sited outright as planned.”

If the judge accepts this key argument of the legal case, it would kill the program at the S. Lane Street site. But, from a lay observer's point of view, I wonder about the strength of that argument when locked wards at Harborview for people with psychiatric problems who suffer and misbehave, like locked doors on assisted-living residences for ambulatory seniors lacking social self-control, don’t turn those places into jails. Moreover, according to DESC executive director Bill Hobson, facilities like Crisis Solutions elsewhere in Washington state are classified as hospitals.

If JPAE's central argument doesn't prevail, the group's other arguments will probably not shut down the process. In Wall's formulation, these are that the city and county exerted undue behind-the-scenes pressure on DPD to wrongly issue DESC a permit for the facility, and “DESC should not be given a pass from compliance with due process and fundamental principles of law that we all hold sacred as citizens of this country.” If such arguments sway the court, the consequence is likely to be a routing of the project to a hearing examiner for a proper review, which stands a good chance of leading to approval, according to Bradburd — after further delays.

“All neighborhoods, when you’re putting up an unpopular project, want assurance that you’re not going to do violence to livability and civility,” said Hobson. So the good neighbor agreement with Jackson Place stakeholders requires DESC to oversee activities outside the building, such as having first responders arrive with strobes and sirens off, and prohibiting strangers from walking up to the facility to ask for treatment or visit someone. Crisis Solutions will also make a 24-hour phone number available for any neighbor or stakeholder to use in case a problem arises. “We’re pretty richly staffed. If it’s related to us, we’ll take action. If unrelated, we’ll help the person solve the problem. We know about crisis resources that most people don’t.”

DESC has also promised special fencing for security along with landscaping for aesthetic appeal. In its turn, the neighborhood organization, Jackson Place Community Council , will host an educational forum on psychiatric disorders. Parents were spooked after being told that “dangerous mentally ill people are going to be threats to the safety of schoolchildren,” said Hobson. In contrast, a neighbor on the committee calmed potential prejudice and fear by telling the group of her own chronic mental illness. “It was brave. It leavened concerns. She did a lot of education,” Hobson said.

But he stressed the need for understanding far beyond the neighborhood. “The general public is unreasonably fearful of people living with major mental disorders. And it’s not the public's fault. There are major distortions in media reporting. Not intentionally.” Someone with a mental illness who is “working, maintaining an apartment — it’s not what people hear of. But they sure hear about the guy who killed the man on Capitol Hill” (a reference to Michael J. La-Rosa’s murder of Joseph M. LaMagno outside a grocery store in November 2010).

Amnon Shoenfeld, director of the county’s mental health and chemical dependency services, observed that whenever a project involving social services is planned anywhere in Seattle, “there are neighbors who say this isn’t the right place, we have too many of these.” This is currently the case in the Delridge neighborhood in West Seattle, and in Ballard, where a housing project for homeless veterans and civilians is on hold, he said. Even so, people interviewed for this article didn't protest, as south Seattle residents often do, that their neighborhoods end up with more than their share of projects constructed to benefit disadvantaged populations.

About that point Hobson said, “It has an element of validity, in the sense that public funders of organizations like DESC, LIHI, Compass Center, Plymouth, and Catholic Community Services want us to bring these projects in with as low an estimated cost per square foot as possible. Labor and material do not vary very much. The real variance is in land. Land is cheaper in Rainier Valley, Delridge, and north on Aurora Avenue.”

But “the real, the more concerning point” for Hobson (as for Shoenfeld) “is the initial demonization of the people we intend to house in these projects. There is tremendous misunderstanding and fear.”

Local media have been doing more to fight the stigma that shadows these groups, said Shoenfeld. He cited KING-5's TV series, From Stigma to Hope, and former county executive Randy Revelle's work, ongoing for decades, with local hospitals and community advocates to change the belief that talking about a mental problem is socially unacceptable. “If it’s shameful, if people need to recede into the woodwork, that doesn’t help with their recovery,” Shoenfeld said. “KING-TV is doing a great job” (as is the New York Times, in an exceptional series about people with schizophrenia who lead productive lives). But it’s also difficult for mainstream news media and networks, whose audiences expect daily coverage of a wide range of breaking news stories, to focus heavily on features about individuals living ordinary lives in contrast to popular stereotypes.

In any case, having this kind of facility hung up in court is especially frustrating to Shoenfeld, because it's when people in crisis can’t get treatment that they cause problems of the kind that intrude on other citizens. “There’s lots of data, lots of evidence, that when we provide treatment” such problems diminish, he said.

To me, it's also ironic that in an era of huge cuts to mental-health and chemical-dependency services, a facility that is fully funded is being blocked. As Hobson observed, “Every day the taxpayers of this county are paying that bill while it’s delayed by a small number of neighbors,” and it adds up to a chunk of change (see the sidebar on page 1 of this story). The $2 million cost to Tacoma of one addicted person, described in a November article in the News Tribune, is a timely cautionary tale, too. Of course a democracy gives neighbors to the right to take legal action in defending local interests, even if they collide with the interests of another minority of sufferers.

Gossett, looking ahead, sounded upbeat. Increasing numbers of King County residents see the need to step up and welcome people living on the margins into the community. He pointed to Rainier House, another entity owned and operated by DESC. “Things are working out well there. One of the opposition groups, the Chamber of Commerce, actually has their office on the first floor now. So I’m confident that good neighbor agreements can work out to the satisfaction of the great majority of the people.”

JPAE’s Wall also spoke of possible reconciliation, saying that the neighborhood association to which she also belongs, the Jackson Place Community Council, “has agreed with DESC to host the education forums [about mental illness] if and when the facility is located on South Lane.”

Editor's note: The story has been changed to reflect the following corrections from JPAE: The text urging neighbors not to participate in the GNA process is still on the Web site. Second, Kristin Wall wrote in an email (she did not speak in an interview) words to the effect that the facility is in the wrong place: it "cannot be sited outright as planned."


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