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Fighting for the Mentally Ill at City Hall

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Fighting for the Mentally Ill at City Hall

Step By Step, a consumer run drop-in center for the mentally ill caused quite a stir in the small upstate New York town where it's located. Causing a stir was not their intention. Expanding services was the plan in 2014 when the nonprofit organization purchased a vacated elementary school in a residential neighborhood. The school wasn't the community's only abandoned, oversized building sitting in a residential area. Officials realized even before the drop-in center purchased the school that its antiquated zoning laws needed to be changed. They'd begun the process when backlash from citizens over the prospect of some residents suffering from a mental illness becoming their neighbors erupted.

Discrimination reared its ugly head in the community that has been home to the state run St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center since the 1880s, providing good paying jobs with State benefits and retirement for generations of families. A few years earlier the psychiatric center was on the chopping block. The community came together. A task force was formed to save the facility. It was made clear early on their main concern was the continuation of inpatient care for the mentally ill and not those good paying jobs. Yet, from the outrage displayed over the drop-in center moving into the abandoned school, it became obvious that the concern for continuation of care meant care only provided inside that psychiatric center. Once those patients are released, the rules and the caring seem to change drastically.

As I sat and listened to the outrage meeting after meeting I was amazed by the lack of understanding of an illness that has been part of the community's history. The mentally ill have provided salaries-paid for college-paid for vacations and cars and groceries and heat and lights and taxes yet when the tables turn and the mentally ill want to become a part of the community outside the psychiatric center, they're greeted with a discrimination that echoes ignorance and cruelty. A few examples of the discrimination spoken at meetings and written in Letters to the Editor are as follows:

"They're not much of a threat if they take their meds."

"We must be concerned for the safety of our children. The potential harm mental or physical is too great to be ignored."

"I object to its locating in my neighborhood where there are many children. This is not the place for them. I am fearful of living so close to them. They'll be able to see me in my house. I refuse to pull the shades. I feel extreme fear. I won't be able to sit on my front porch or work in my yard. Medicated clients walking in the road or even worse, coming up on my porch causes me great fear."

"Mental health people belong somewhere else. Put them where they can be supervised."

"Why would I want this mental health facility in my neighborhood? I've worked hard keeping my home and property up."

"This is nothing against the mentally ill. I've known some mentally ill. But a school is three blocks away. Ninety percent of those children walk to school."

"Did you catch the shooting in NYC the other day? The one where the schizophrenic (certified) attacked the female cop with a hammer on the mean streets? His third or fourth attack in as many days they say. Also a bit off his meds they say. This drop-in center serves schizophrenics."

"Being in a program assures nothing. They are voluntary. Read the daily paper and you'll see that program members go off the rails all the time."

"We're not against them. We're against them living in our neighborhood."

After a long, drawn-out battle of regulations and rules being changed in the middle of meetings and voters continuing to spew hatred, City officials denied Step By Step's application in May, 2015. No reason was given. But that was not the end of the story. Step By Step decided to seek justice both for their members who'd become victims of discrimination and for the mentally ill in other communities facing similar circumstances. The law firm of Cooper Erving & Savage LLP located in Albany, NY was hired. Litigation Associate Carlo A. C. de Oliveira represented Step By Step in both town hall meetings and in the Federal Court of the Hon. David N. Hurd, Northern District of NY. On April 13th, Judge Hurd ruled in favor of Step By Step, ordering the City to approve Step By Step's zoning application in order to establish a mental health facility consistent with its application.

In the Judge's own words, "And while obtaining public comment on a matter of public concern is commendable, the City Council may not cede its decision making authority to the public especially when a significant portion of public opposition was based on improper biases towards Step By Step's clients."

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Barbara Briggs Ward is a writer, illustrator and mental health advocate living in Ogdensburg, NY.
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Fighting for the Mentally Ill at City Hall

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