from the West Linn Tidings, op/ed by Beverly Backa
“Is there No Place on Earth For Me”…is the title of a Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction work published more than two decades ago. Reading it helped shape my vision and set the course for my professional career. The book is the story of the “revolving door” mental health system that a young woman experienced in New York in the 1970s.
Sadly, the story of that young woman still rings true today. The story of James Chasse, a man who suffered from chronic schizophrenia and his tragic death in downtown Portland is a story of a system that is still ill equipped to deal with and humanely treat the mentally ill. I did not know James, but his parents, who barely knew me, have supported my political campaign. I feel it is my duty to do my best to address the issues and the solutions that might have saved, or at least improved, their son’s life.
During the course of the past week I have attended two public forums – the Clackamas County Legislative Forum and the Affordable Housing Forum in Beaverton. A common theme has emerged from these two public meetings and the details of James Chasse’s life and death – mental illness and homelessness are often tied together.
After more than 20 years of service as a mental health provider, this is not new information for me. But that we still struggle with it is a new call to action. The mentally ill do not just struggle with their internal demons – they struggle with the same real life issues that we all face. How do we feed ourselves and provide for our basic needs such as housing, and in James’s case, personal safety.
One of the most remarkable studies ever done that supports the case for housing for the mentally ill was simple in its nature. A group of researchers “gave” a group of consumers (mentally ill) their own apartment. They offered no other treatment and simply monitored the progress of the patients. The aspect of simply having a residence so greatly improved the health of these individuals that in some cases it rivaled the affect of psychotropic medication. The study was interesting, but the idea has continued to struggle to find a firm foothold. In a society that eschews a “handout,” the idea of just giving people housing as treatment was and remains countercultural.
James Chasse was one of the fortunate few who had obtained stable housing at the time of his death. It is not the case for many others. Affordable housing is being torn down daily to make way for new or renovated properties that offer builders and investors a higher rate of return. We can expect little or no help from the federal government on this front and it is up to our state and local leaders to step up to this challenge.
There are a few bright spots on the horizon. Villebois has worked with Clackamas County Mental Health to develop community based housing for the mentally ill within its “village” type concept. The first units have just been completed. The units offer housing that is accessible and close to employment opportunities for the individuals that they will shelter. It is a start, but we have a long way to go.
Affordable housing will involve capital investment. The Housing Alliance, a group of non-profit organizations and city governments, has developed the 2007 Housing Opportunity Agenda.
It calls for the state legislature to appropriate $100 million in the next biennium to support affordable housing. A majority of the funds will constitute a capital investment in actual housing.
For a Legislature that is short on dollars for operations, the idea of capital expenditures is a stretch. But I keep hearing a lot of talk about “return on investment” from our elected officials.
If we are really serious about this concept then the Oregon Legislature is going to need to invest in affordable housing for the mentally ill and other at-risk populations.
The “return on investment” is a capitalized asset that remains after many services have come and gone. The return on investment could very well be a life.
Bev Backa is the democratic candidate for State Representative, House District 37.