Jan 27, 2008

Mentally ill in the neighborhood: some history

Update: See CHS blog for good up-to-date summary of the James Anthony Williams murder arrest. And see this long, thoughtful post by Capitol Hill neighbor Wesa about the mental health system.

(sent to me by a correspondent, who also noted the attack on a teacher at a Capitol Hill bus-stop on E. Pine Street on Jan 13th and the fatal Jan 26th shooting on E. Pine Street, and wondered what was happening to our neighborhood).

I think it is time to back off of the "too many social services" and get clear that the concern is Sound Health, until recently known as Seattle Mental Health Institute. It is THIS social service agency that has been an attractor for so many unstable and clearly deranged people in the area. Over time, in my memory, clients of this particular agency have been convicted or implicated in the murders of three individuals -- there may have been others.

SMHI was founded when Washington closed Western State Hospital which, at the time, was an unhealthy and terrible place. I have lost track -- I believe that the State did reopen Western State at another location. The ethic at the time (the early '70s) was that mentally ill people deserved better treatment than they were receiving at the State hospital. Also at the time, there was concern about folks who had been involuntarily committed to Western State without any personal legal rights. The laws about commitment were changed.

When SMHI first appeared in the Madison corridor, the neighborhood was pretty decrepit and people using the services of the Institute were often living in apartment buildings close to the outpatient services. There was a scandal about how those buildings were operated and how the patients were treated which resulted in an agreement with the Capitol Hill Community Council and closure of some of the boarding houses and many changes in the way people who lived in them were treated. (As I recall, some of the landlords were pocketing tenants relief checks.) Then SMHI built their new facility, with a lot of community input on the design. And the older decrepit housing was razed and new condos were built. I believe the idea was that clients of a mental health institute should be exposed to a "normal" neighborhood.

There have been many changes in the way people are treated at SMHI, and in the way people interact with the facility over time. Also, it is important to know that Harborview Hospital, also in the Madison corridor, has a locked ward where people in need receive immediate and critical care if they are deemed mentally ill.

The Summit Inn, and other single-room-occupancy residences serve an absolutely critical role in Seattle's shrinking housing stock. There are very few places where single people can afford to live. Snotty remarks about sitting on milk crates and smoking simply ignore the reality that no one can smoke at home any more -- the fear of smoking has combined with the fear of cigarette-induced fires to mean that most apartment buildings have insurance that precludes smoking on site. I have to sit on my stoop to smoke. The Displacement Coalition has been fighting for years to replace the low-cost housing lost downtown and in other neighborhoods, without much success. I am grateful for the Wintonia (Seattle Archdiocese Housing) and others who have managed to carve out some spaces for those who absolutely cannot afford Seattle apartment prices.

The question is why was this guy on the street at all. I've certainly seen him around the neighborhood. How are we to know that this man, and perhaps others, are ready to be free of supervision? And what does Sound Health do when they have an outpatient who clearly is not safe on the streets, either for others or for him or herself?

This same correspondent previously noted:

One of my concerns about the neighborhood in question continues to be about why this neighborhood is prone to such violent crime. And it has been over many decades. There are undoubtedly burglaries, robberies, and speeding cars. Drug use is endemic (though why it is outside baffles me.) But, frankly, serious assault and murder are much too common in this area of town. (Say, about 15th to about 20th, both north and south of Madison by a few blocks.)

I don't understand it. We have too many social service institutions in the area, of course, but social service institutions of themselves may or may not be the attraction. I've always wondered about SMHI's clientele. I don't know much about Union Gospel Mission's clientele. Jewish Social Services seems unlikely to attract severely unstable people. There are senior centers, but most neighborhoods have senior centers. It doesn't seem to be racial conflict, although there may be some of that as well. Madison Market, bless them, has had their staff reduced quite seriously since they've moved to 16th and Madison. And they are a grocery store and a co-op.

Is my perception shared by others? Does any one have any idea how we might figure out what attracts such serious violence to the area? We're hardly snobs. Most folk around here are quite tolerant in fact. Also vigilant.

I offer this as something to ruminate about as we try to cope with yet another violent death.


Seattle Crime Blogger said...

While there has been an apparent rash of crimes lately - or perhaps the media is just finally seizing upon the things that have been occuring for a long time - it is important to remain level-headed. Crime on Capitol Hill is still extremely low, and we need to accept that there is just a certain degree to which it will inevitably continue to occur.

I disagree with the assertion that "serious assault and murder are much too common" between 15th and 20th on Madison. These crimes are few and far between. What we are experiencing here is not "serious violence." It is violence that all cities experience to some degree or another, and I think it's safe to say that most similar sized urban neighborhoods across the country would welcome crime rates as low as we have them on Capitol Hill.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of your political persuasions, the fact remains that the person who was arrested in the Shannon Harps murder should have NEVER been allowed to be out in the public UNSUPERVISED. It not only would have saved at least one life, but would have also been better for that person if he were committed somewhere FOR LIFE with 24 HOUR / 365 DAYS PER YEAR SUPERVISION. The fact is, Capital Hill will experience other similar crimes (murders, assaults, etc.) until these mentally disturbed people are placed in TOTAL SUPERVISED facilities. Yes, it will cost money, but it will save lives ... and yes, it may impair their rights, but it will preserve the rights on the rest of us to lIVE.

Christine said...

I love catty-corner to "sound health", and I used to say that I felt pretty safe living there because all the folks there were supervised/locked up/medicated. Now I am not so sure, and even feel like maybe I've been completely wrong. For sure that guy should have been locked up (along with the guy they originally suspected!).

Christine said...

Sorry, I LIVE catty-corner to SMH.

Philip Dawdy said...

just an fyi: western state hospital has never been closed. get your facts straight

Andrew Taylor said...

From the author of the post:

I apologize. I was dredging my memory. It was Northern State Hospital that was closed. For some articles about this to start finding information please see www.stumpranchonline.com/skagitjournal/S-WArea/NSH/NSH4-ClosingTime1.html. This was the closure I was referring too. I also, just today, was able to reclaim the files of flyers and Capitol Hill Community Council notes from this period (1975-78 or so) from a friend's attic. It was a time of considerable upheaval in in the mental health field throughout the state.