For a year now, neighbors out in Milwaukie have been trying to stop the construction of Balfour House a secure residential treatment facility for mentally ill criminals - this week, for the first time, the company building the center tried to work out a compromise. Instead of a 15-bed treatment center, the place will house only eight people suffering from mental illness who have been okayed to transition into regular communities.

I went to a heated, emotional protest in September at the site of the planned facility, at the end of a poorly paved street lined with old trees and single-family homes. When a man from the National Alliance of Mental Health stood up to explain the strong need for treatment, he was nearly shouted down by a ring of 40 neighbors.

"This is about civil rights - " said the mental health advocate.
"Whose?!" shouted someone in the crowd.
"What about ours?!" called out another neighbor.

Anyway, at that time, the neighbors said the group building the facility, Columbia Care, was "stonewalling" them. But at a neighborhood association meeting last week, the group announced it would reduce the number of beds to eight, trying to appease neighbors concerns about the building's size.

September protest sign

This is a big issue - the divisive debate over whether the treatment center is fueled by the general fear of people who are mentally ill and people who have committed crimes. It also raises important questions about rights and responsibilities: does the patients' right to equal, effective care supersede the rights of neighboring property owners? The American with Disabilities Act says yes, but one of the major points raised by the Milwaukie residents is that they feel mental patients are being dumped in their neighborhood because they don't have the political power of wealthier areas. When I look at the numbers, I don't see that as a convincing pattern. This is the first secure residential treatment facility in Clackamas County, according to county commissioner Lynn Peterson's office. Multnomah County already has 77 secure beds, with one facility in Gresham, one in Fairview and five in Portland.