Our nation’s character has taken a troubling turn | TheUnion.com

Our nation’s character has taken a troubling turn

Other Voices
William Larsen

Two stories in the recent news — one local, one national — illustrate a disturbing trend in our society.

The first concerns the agonies of the 46 Grass Valley "neighbors" who signed a petition protesting a residential home for four mentally ill adults in their neighborhood on Pelton Way. Considering the uproar, one would think the proposal was for forced housing of people with mental illnesses in the "neighbors"' homes. Hardly.

This home is part of an innovative program conceived for the worthy purpose of re-integrating adults recovering from serious illness — and costly financial/social dependency — back into society. The residential aspect is an essential component of this multi-tiered system, providing a vital transitional link by offering supervised support and education in independent living skills. The four individuals have been carefully screened for problems that might endanger the neighborhood. According to county administrators, none will have any issues relating to violence or drug/alcohol abuse, and no sexual offenders will be included.

Given the burgeoning personal, social and financial costs of mental illness, this should be a win-win for all concerned. The risk is minimal, and likely weighted toward dangers to the new residents from the community, rather than the reverse. The "neighbors" fear a loss of property values, but there's not the slightest evidence this would occur (can anyone seriously believe a supervised household of four individuals is really going to "ghettoize" the neighborhood?). They ask why their children must be exposed to people with mental health issues. The real question is why they don't see this as a wonderful opportunity to allow their children the experience of learning about mental illness and developing tolerance for people with disabilities. This population spans all social-economic lines, and is almost certainly represented in their neighborhood already, let alone in many of their families. Simply put, the residents aren't "them". They're "us".

Both are underprivileged heroes struggling through a history of violence and intolerance to create better, more productive lives.

I suggest an alternative viewpoint to the "neighbors:"

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Instead of resisting this valuable addition to your neighborhood, why not work with the administrators of the program to ensure the best possible placement of individuals in the home and better understand its aims and daily operation? How about arranging to meet the four residents after it opens — and open it will — to welcome them into the community, so you are a part of the solution to this severe medical problem rather than obstacles to the home's success? Concerned for your children? Why not bring them to the house and let them meet the residents so the kids learn about the scourge of mental illness and see these folks for the unique individuals they are. Maybe then, they will develop compassion and understanding for those afflicted, rather than adopting a misguided bias toward people with mental illness. What great school projects could come from such an approach, what a deepening of your kids' maturity and empathy for those less fortunate than themselves.

The second item concerns the Central American children apprehended crossing our border. Again, one would think these kids are showing up armed with nuclear devices and screaming "Down with America." Citizens across the country are protesting in droves, blocking the buses trying to transport the children to holding centers so their situations can be individually adjudicated. Like the "neighbors", conservative Republicans are in an uproar over this, and want to send the kids back without hearings.

Speaking on PBS recently, the conservative columnist, David Brooks, stated that these reactionaries are shooting themselves in the foot because the law, common sense, and the average American's sense of fair play dictate a more reasoned approach. Given the situation in their home countries, many of these children will, in fact, meet the criteria for refugee status. Denying them the opportunity to have their cases considered on their merit is a slap in the face to the values (and rule of law) America stands for. It's also bad politics.

Here's a question for the reader. Would you have done what these kids did, given the accident of being born into a world of violent chaos? Or not? That's a question most can't answer, because these kids have shown a courage and strength we haven't. They exemplify the rugged pioneering spirit that made this country great. They deserve consideration for a shot at the American Dream. And this is what links them with those with a mental illness in Nevada County. Both are underprivileged heroes struggling through a history of violence and intolerance to create better, more productive lives.

Those who would deny them this opportunity represent a troubling development in our nation's character.

William Larsen lives in Nevada City.

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