A major but familiar dust up in the Ardenwald-Johnson neighborhood is changing course this week. Encouraged by residents, the Milwaukie City Council tried to block a plan to turn a residential home into a secure treatment facility called Balfour House - stocked with cameras, alarms and 24-hour staffing - for 15 people who had been found guilty except for insanity to transition back into noninstitutional life. This Tuesday, the Council finally voted to stop subverting the plan and the Ardenwald-Johnson Creek Neighborhood Association launched a website outlining why they think Balfour House could threaten their safety.

I'm going to go ahead and cry NIMBY on this right now. But this debate is really interesting because it brings up the deep fear of the mentally ill a lot of people feel. I get what makes people queasy about living next door to mentally ill people who've committed violent crimes. But I also think making more centers like Balfour House are the right thing to do.

Okay, first from the neighbor's website:

"Many of us believe that a secure lockdown facility of 15 or more people, some of whom will have committed violent acts (murder, rape, sexual and child molestation, arson, etc.), does not belong within an area of single family homes. It is not a matter of discrimination. Whether the residents come from the state maximum security prison or from the state mental hospital, it is not appropriate."

"I would like to see the mentally ill get some treatment, but if they escaped, they could potentially commit harm," Neighborhood Association Secretary Bryan Dorr told me yesterday, "Right now this community is concerned about its safety and well being."

The company that runs these secure group homes says hostility from neighbors is typical, but unfounded. "Once the facility is sited, we do not get complaints from neighbors," says Jones. And their record is clean. A Columbia Care treatment center that's been in Josephine County for 14 years recently got a letter from the sheriff certifying its incident-free record. In the mean time, they've been providing mental healthcare for people who really need it.

"It's sort of a dance that the state and agencies do but the law is really clear," exaplains Jason Renaud, an advocate for the Mental Health Association of Portland who's been working with disabled people for more than 15 years, "People with mental illness are disabled people." Discriminating against where mentally disabled people can live breaks both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Federal Housing Act.

Dorr says allowing mentally ill criminals to live in secure residential facilities is a "loophole" in the law, that the ADA and Federal Housing Act should make an exception and allow the government to bar certain mentally ill people from living in certain neighborhoods.

The basic problem here is that people who commit crimes can't just disappear. We really really want them to as a society, putting more and more people behind bars for longer and longer sentences. But the point of arresting people for crimes is the hope (except in some exceptionally awful cases) that they can someday learn how to function in society again. People don't want "the criminally insane" transitioning back into society via their neighborhood, but think of the bleak options for what would happen if local governments and irate neighbors were allowed to kick mentally ill people out of areas near schools or children:

1. Mental patients would go straight from living closely supervised in the state mental hospital to living on their own with no income or housing. That means many of them would wind up homeless. No staff, no medication, no control. Not good for the children.

2. Mentally ill people would become ghettoized. As Jason Renaud points out, that doesn't help them get better: "When they continue to be discriminated against and ostracized, it's hard to get well." But it's also bad for local communities, as Iowa found after passing a super-restrictive law on where sex offenders could live. Iowa wound up with all of its sex offenders living in the handful of still-legal neighborhoods (like renting out entire motels to share). Not good for the children!

Elaine Medcalf gets it - she's the Vice Chair of the Powellhurst Neighborhood Assocation as also happens to be a social worker. "People can change," Medcalf says simply, adding, "Where are they going to put them if they don't put [the residential facility] there? We can't put them all downtown!" A residential treatment facility similar to the planned Balfour House already exists in Powellhurst, Faulkner Place on SE 134th and Powell. Medcalf says she hasn't heard of any problems at all resulting from Faulkner Place since it was built.

Update: One of the issues the neighbors are upset about is that if someone wanders off from the facility, the staff legally can't restrain them - they just have to call the police. I wondered whether this was a legit concern, so I asked the police to look through their reports from Faulkner Place. Since January 2006, they've been called for 19 walk-offs. All those people were found and no one got hurt but the neighbors are right: there's the chance that 10 mentally ill people a year could be wandering around their streets.