Cothran

Mental Blockheads
Five months ago, more than 20 residents from the flatlands below Potrero Hill began to call into question the care provided by a nearby long-term facility for the mentally ill housed in a decrepit-looking four-unit Victorian. They had heard that the facility, the Johnson Guest Home, was planning to expand, and they thought expansion a bad idea. Already, they'd witnessed what they believed was a lack of supervision by the guest home staff, a lack that left residents of the home free to engage in disruptive and self-destructive behavior.

The neighbors circulated a petition to present to city planning officials, who were deciding whether to grant a permit for the expansion. They wrote letters and testified at a hearing before the commission, echoing the same complaints: Residents of the Johnson facility loitered on their steps, drank and smoked to excess, and left behind litter. Residents made so much noise neighbors couldn't sleep at night. Residents exposed themselves. Residents appeared on the streets in disheveled and filthy clothes. And residents became aggressive when their behavior was challenged.

The neighbors thought they were safeguarding their quality of life, even as they were making sure the guest home residents were being properly cared for.

The neighbors would learn that they could not have been more wrong.
Mental health advocates wrote their own letters to the Planning Commission. Those letters informed the neighbors of their true motives in opposing expansion of the group home: They were bigots against the mentally ill, pure and simple.

Now that the Johnson Guest Home neighbors have been shown the light, they have but one course of action to follow: They need to undertake an arduous and lengthy period of progressive self-actualization and political re-education.

First, they must admit that what the advocates say about them is correct. They must repent, and acknowledge that they're modern-day equivalents of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Even after that, much hard work lies ahead for these ideologically wayward neighbors. But we should all harbor hope for them. You see, they are mere larvae in a cocoon. If they work hard enough they will someday emerge as productive and right-thinking San Franciscans.

I'm being a smartass, of course. But I've got good reason to crack wise.
For 10 years now, I've watched smug, unreconstructed liberal advocates run their mouths, without thinking, about the plight of some subgroup or another of the underclass. Usually, these advocates use such overheated rhetoric that the debate gets hopelessly perverted, so it focuses more on whether everybody is in lock-step accord with the proper liberal line than on the best solution to a problem.

Even worse: I have watched, time and again, as politicians have pandered to the rhetoric, and ignored the facts, and made loony decision after loony counterproductive decision.

In this case, the language contained in the letters of the advocates, who claim to represent the interests of the mentally ill, is exceptionally extreme and unnecessary, nearly amounting to slander. It's also quite well-rehearsed. So forgive me if I employ a little satire now and again; if I took these advocates very seriously, I'd be rocking on the Johnson Guest Home porch myself.

Underneath the smart remarks, though, I'm quite serious about this Johnson Guest Home situation. The 23 neighbors who oppose the expansion of the home have legitimate concerns about its operation and the effect the proposed expansion would have on the neighborhood. And those concerns go to the health of the neighborhood and the residents of the home.

The owners of the guest home, the Johnson family -- Nelvin Sr. and Jr., and Junior's wife, Charlotte -- have repairs to perform at their building, which is located at 26th and Florida streets and houses 18 severely mentally ill individuals. More than $200,000 in repairs. (This would not strike you as an excessive amount if you saw the condition of the exterior of the building.)

But like many operators of long-term residential care facilities, who depend on reimbursement from state and federal health care coffers, the Johnsons are cash poor. They had to take out a loan to fix up the house. They would like to increase the number of clients in their home from 18 to 26. For each new resident, the Johnsons get a little more than $700 a month. That's $5,600 or so a month that could be used to help pay off the loan.

Mental health advocates are trying to frame the issue in a stock way: vicious, bigoted NIMBYs stand in the way of housing the mentally ill in an era of dwindling bed space and increasing need. But the real, and more disturbing issue, is being sidestepped: The Johnsons, at the limit of the number of clients they can handle right now, are attempting to take on more, just because they are behind the eight ball on the condition of their building.

Planning staffers who advise the commission and the planning department director, Gerald Green, have recommended against the expansion. On Oct. 15, the commission -- which can ignore staff recommendations -- will vote on whether to allow the guest home to expand.

But the commission is torn. Clearly, some commission members have been swayed by the argument of the mental health advocacy community. The advocates' argument has been accompanied by some subtle and not so subtle threats to sue the city under the Americans with Disabilities Act if the expansion is turned down.

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