EDITOR’S NOTE: In the ongoing discussion over the Downtown Emergency Service Center plan for a 75-apartment building in Delridge to house homeless people living with mental illness, we have heard many voices – concerned neighbors, supportive neighbors, neighbors remaining neutral to try to coordinate discussion/information, neighborhood-group leaders, DESC executives, government funders. Not long after last month’s Delridge Community Forum about the project, we happened onto a Facebook note by a Delridge resident/community activist who was viewing the discussion through another prism: That of a person living with mental illness, who has experienced homelessness. She gave us permission to publish it as an opinion essay.
By Galena White
Special to West Seattle Blog
I attended the community meeting about the DESC project on October 11th. It was intended to serve as a bridge between the residents of my neighborhood and an organization that wants to build an assisted-living community in my neighborhood.
I understand that at the first public meeting for this project, there was significant resistance to the idea, mainly because residents were worried about the character of the residents-to-be. At the meeting I attended, there were some mentions of concern over whether the new residents would have sufficient access to health care and groceries, since our neighborhood is mostly residential and has few amenities. Unfortunately, I believe those concerns to have been weak justification for the anger, fear, and prejudice that was palpable in the room. I think that most of the people who attended were afraid that crazy homeless criminals were going to invade their community. The two women who sat at my table seemed extremely upset, saying that the project was unacceptable because it would be within a block of their homes and children.
One official mentioned that the other residents who live in DESC housing have an overall lower crime rate than the general populace, and also said that the crimes those residents had committed were mostly related to loitering, because they had been homeless. I’ve been homeless. I spent most of the time from 1998 to 2003 with nothing but a backpack (with no income for a lot of the time) or living in a van because I couldn’t afford an apartment.
I was eventually lucky enough to find housing in a similar project to this one, and then to graduate to a regular apartment which is funded in part by a national low-income-housing program. Many others are not as fortunate, because there are not currently enough buildings and not enough funding to provide help to those who desperately need it. Since I found housing, I’ve been attending college, going to therapy, volunteering in my community and trying to overcome my disability. My hope is to eventually have a good job, a garden, and the ability to travel. If organizations like the DESC had not been able to find cheap land to build housing, I might now only be dreaming of spending the day in the library to stay warm.
When the meeting had already gone over-time, the facilitator was scrambling to find a representative from the City of Seattle to answer a question about what it would be like to have mentally ill people living in the neighborhood. I wanted to stand up and speak, but she had specifically asked for replies from invited speakers – no doubt because she didn’t think that any of the community members had anything positive to say about the mentally ill. I would have stood, despite my crippling anxiety (and probably embarrassed myself by stuttering), to tell everyone in the room that I am mentally ill.
I live on Social Security payments, I’ve been a good tenant in my apartment building for almost four years (less than a block from many families with children), and I’ve been working to bring healthy food to the neighborhood for three years. I’m not employed, but I do volunteer in the community when my anxiety allows for it. I am higher-functioning, probably, than many of the putative residents would be – but it’s more important to recognize that I am a human being, in possession of emotions and enough awareness to recognize that most of the people in the room were afraid of ME.
I try to understand and work to overcome every prejudice and injustice in the world (especially the ones that I am inadvertently responsible for perpetrating), and so I’m used to shrugging off the negative emotions that others’ hatred inspires in me. It is still hard to ignore the very personal stigma of mental illness. I wish that I had stood up. I wish that there was something I could do to show the people there that I am one of those they fear, and yet they had nothing to fear from me. Most of the people in that room would have appreciated my efforts to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to my neighborhood, but some would pass up the opportunity to volunteer for my nascent produce cooperative because of their fear of my disability – of me.
I’m hard to deal with sometimes. I’ve hurt people’s feelings without meaning to, when my anxiety ramped my emotions to pitches I couldn’t handle. I’m not proud of that, and believe me, I’ve been working hard on it for years; but there are ways to handle the mentally ill, to handle me when I lose my cool. If you’re calm and logical and kind despite all irregularities, you can establish negotiations with almost anyone, even someone who’s out of mental balance. And even if you can’t, that’s no reason not to keep your own emotions in check. You, as a ‘mentally well’ person, have a responsibility to show some compassion and forbearance toward those who are not as fortunate as you.
It is painful for me to contemplate the misconceptions that some have about those who spend a great deal of time in mental anguish. We know that it would be wrong to say that a brown person, a person in a wheelchair, someone who spoke a different language, or an autistic person was unwelcome in our neighborhood. The thing that scares some of us is that we sometimes don’t know how ‘those people’ (which is how I heard some individuals at the DESC meeting refer to the mentally ill) will react. The truth is that it doesn’t matter how they will act at all. If they’re violent or committing a crime, you should call the police as you would for anyone else – and we already know that the future residents of a DESC building are less likely to commit crimes than many current residents of Delridge.
If they’re just yelling or acting weird, suck it up. I have been told many times, “Suck it up. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Put a smile on your face! Try to feel good about yourself. If people don’t like you, you don’t need them,” and various other aphorisms. Your reaction is what defines whether the world you live in is wholesome, or unsavory. If you’re worried about your children seeing strange behavior, you should explain mental illness to them in a kind and empathetic way; the same way you would explain why someone’s skin is a different shade than theirs, or why they only have one arm.
The fact is that it’s not easy to just make my brain stop making me depressed or stop flooding me with fear hormones. The people who don’t like me – I do need them. I need them to be kind to me when I’m having a nasty day, and I need them to not exclude me from society or try to stop housing from being built for me and people like me. I need to be able to tell everyone I meet that I have a mental illness, and that I may need their help today. If I can’t do that, then I’m never, ever, ever going to stop being afraid of other people, and I’m never going to get well and accomplish my goals. The last thing I need in addition to my Social Anxiety Disorder is to live in a neighborhood where I face prejudice.
Diversity is not just cultural, physical, or spiritual. Rights and kindness are not just for those who act the way you’re used to. Acceptance of individuality, and willingness to accept the quirks of others, are attitudes that can make the human race a more beautiful species. A few residents at the meeting, in their fear, shared a similar question; “Why Delridge? We’re trying to make this a better place. Don’t drag us down when we’re getting on our feet.” My response to that (if I could say it to everyone who has doubts) would be, “We dream of making Delridge a better place – and if we can make it one where the disabled are treated with generosity and kindness, we will have succeeded.”
Galena White is founder of Delridge Produce Cooperative.
P.S. WSB does not run opinion essays often, but we are willing to consider them, if they involve a unique viewpoint on a distinctly West Seattle issue – this one, or another one. We’re reachable by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.