Submitted by Justin Teerlinck.
This is a response to articles published in Lakewood Connections Magazine over the past year concerning the placement of Adult Family Homes in Lakewood. Last summer, I contacted the editor of Lakewood Connections and requested that a counterpoint to the initial piece by Heidi Ann Watcher be published, but I was informed not only that the editor has declined to publish a counterpoint, but that it will not publish letters to the editor or public opinion—even from Lakewood citizens. I was also told that opinions published in Lakewood Connections represent the collective viewpoint of Lakewood City Council, and therefore, the entire City of Lakewood government. I do not know if Lakewood Connections is taxpayer funded, but city council surely is, and therefore citizens should have a voice whenever contentious issues come before the city—in print as well as in council chambers.
As a resident of Lakewood, I have a civic responsibility to speak–as do we all–when the rights of fellow citizens are jeopardized by unjust policies, and the proponents of unjust policies. To remain silent is synonymous with offering tacit acceptance, and the silence of ordinary people leaves us just as morally culpable as the perpetrators of injustice. Therefore, I refuse to stand by and say nothing.
I am concerned about the discriminatory practices that the City of Lakewood wishes to permanently ensconce in its policies to exclude people with mental illness from residing here. The City and its legal team argue that Adult Family Homes are intended only for people with developmental disabilities and senior citizens, and they use this spurious reasoning to waste taxpayer dollars to vociferously argue for discrimination against people with mental illness. In her article in last summer’s Lakewood Connections, attorney Heidi Ann Watcher conflates people with severe mental illness with violent offenders and people with predatory behaviors, and then contrasts her all-inclusive definition with “vulnerable” citizens. She conveniently ignores the fact that people with severe mental illness are also vulnerable citizens. Furthermore, the boundaries of these demographics are blurred, in that there are many people with dual or multiple diagnoses who need our help.
Ms. Watcher and the City of Lakewood should be ashamed–and the public should be outraged–by their NIMBY attitude which is inflammatory, discriminatory, and argues for exclusion of marginalized citizens from our community. It’s time we stopped seeing people only as the sum of their “condition,” and disrespecting older adults by discussing them in terms that suggest that age itself is a disease. Not only was the City’s attempt at discrimination wrongheaded, it also resulted in failure, in that their lawsuit was rightfully denied by Judge Elizabeth Martin, who admirably executed her duty to uphold our values.
The City of Lakewood may want you to believe that people with mental illness are violent predators who we need to be protected from by excluding them from residing here. These efforts amount to nothing more than grandstanding and public theater. It would be laughable if it were fiction, but sadly the only fiction underlying it is the delusion that people with mental illness or other marginalized groups can be legislated out of existence. In fascist, totalitarian states this has been tried, but America is a free society where it is recognized that we are stronger for the diversity of our origins, abilities, and experiences.
This is no laughing matter. Real peoples’ quality of life is at stake, and so are taxpayer resources. It is a myth that by denying people with mental illness continuing support, services, housing, and opportunities that we can save money and make people disappear from our consciousness. We can either pay for group homes, adequate preventive care, programs and support for people in need…or we can pay a much higher cost. We can pay to clog the drains of our broken system with those whom it has failed, we can continue to jail homeless people for vagrancy and petty crime, and for emergency room visits for indigent people—all while failing to address the root causes of societal problems. “These people” are not threatening your grandmother—they are someone’s grandmother, grandfather, their brother, sister, mother, or father, son or daughter. And because America has more freedom than some people who merely pay lip service to American values would like, “these people” will be your neighbors whether we like it or not—and if they are not adequately housed and supported, they’ll be on the streets. The cost of doing the right thing will inevitably be cheaper than paying to prop up the dying fantasy of a gentrified, homogeneous society.
The City of Lakewood has used its exclusive, closed-door pulpit of Lakewood Connections Magazine to urge citizens to speak up. On this point, I agree with them. We must speak out. We must tell our city leaders to not waste another dime of taxpayer funds on their profligate legal escapades. We have a duty to tell them to collaborate with—rather than fight—our state and county government partners to find financial and social solutions for our ill and indigent citizens. If every government agency passes the buck, no one’s problem remains everyone’s problem.
We must stop pretending that people with mental illness and other people with disabilities don’t have valuable contributions to make to our society. They do, if only we had the vision to recognize that, and provide them with opportunities to do so. Most importantly, we must stop adding to the stigma by spouting one-dimensional stereotypes as truth, we must stop advocating for discriminatory policies, and we must replace our so-called leaders who do—because their voice is the voice of the people. Our leaders are our paid representatives, the public trust is sacrosanct. While it is forgivable, and only human nature to err, elected officials must be held to a higher standard if the offices they hold mean anything. They must uphold the ideals of honor, veracity, and compassion for if they do not, they threaten to stain the honor of all Lakewood citizens.