By Michele McCormick
Fear was palpable; the room charged on April 22, in Laguna’s City Council chambers. Following Friendship Shelter Director Dawn Price’s presentation on permanent supportive housing for the homeless, a line of residents formed to express genuine concern as well as support. Some did not want this project in their backyard — the NIMBY phenomenon– others feared it would be a magnet pulling undesirables from across the nation to Laguna — the magnet theory. But, hey, I get it. My first psychology internship in 1978 was at Camarillo State Hospital. I was a young 20-something, walking those run down halls in my Nordstrom’s suits. Assigned to a male schizophrenia ward, I was initially terrified when I walked onto the unit and heard the massive doors lock behind me. I was on the inside with the patients but without keys. Initially afraid that I would be dragged into a corner and assaulted I gradually confronted my stereotypes. After a year of working with these men who were fathers and brothers and sons, compassion replaced fear. Only four years earlier my father had been hospitalized for depression.
We can’t know what we don’t know. Emerson suggested that ignorance breeds fear. In my case, ignorance led to curiosity. My doctoral dissertation explored social categorization and labeling. In that work, I discovered that our prejudices, often unconscious, blind us from seeing the individual within a group and may lead to stereotyping and discrimination. Later while a graduate instructor at Pepperdine University, I designed an exercise to explore stigma. The instructions read, “Imagine that you are not yet a trained therapist. As a child what was communicated to you by adults about the mentally ill. What images, impressions come to mind? Write down words to describe your associations. The most consistent words were: crazy, loony, dirty, sicko, nuts, mad, wacko, mean, violent, scary, stinky, homeless, vagrants, unmanageable, “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The same words peppered the Council meeting. Anecdotes were described in detail… painting a vivid portrait of the homeless for all to witness: dirty, violent, psychotic, pedophiles, incontinent, thieves, sexually violent predators, and disrupters of free enterprise. While some concerns were based on incidents, I was shocked to hear generalizations and stereotypes espoused by educated, caring residents. It began to look as if our dogs and sea lions were more important to us than distressed human beings. Look, I know stigma exists, but to hear it like that in a hot council chamber when packed like sardines and delivered by friends and neighbors… left me viscerally disturbed. Clearly there remains a lack of knowledge, misinformation, and entrenched stigma.
In a collaborative project with the California Institute of Mental Health (CIMH),
UC Davis and the California Mental Health Directors Association’s SCERP committee I developed an extensive curriculum on treating dual diagnosis through integrated services for the severely mentally ill. Stakeholders wished to solve problems created by “deinstitutionalization” during the ‘60s and ‘70s when state mental hospitals closed and dumped the severely mentally ill back into their neighborhoods where they were to receive community-based-services. Many fell through the cracks in a flawed system. Over a two-year period in the late 1990s, I trained directors and staff at county mental health, social service and alcohol and drug agencies throughout California. Follow-up in the second year showed that our evidence-based interventions were working.
In closing comments, Council member Toni Iseman called for a proven model implying that she might not be aware that the research is out there, supporting permanent supportive housing as a best-practice solution. Moreover, such programs mitigate expressed concerns while saving taxpayer dollars. Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring the homeless inside and provide the wrap around services they require?
As I left Tuesday’s Council meeting, I walked out with a woman who stood with me at the microphone line hoping to speak. Neither of us got the allotted one-minute. Out on the sidewalk, I said, “Wow, that was something.” She said, “Sure was. I was homeless once. Now, I am doing great. I wanted to tell them.” I turned to face her, “What was that like for you… in there to hear such negative comments?” She cried. I hugged her. Meeting adjourned.
Michele McCormick is a practicing psychologist, writer and resident living in Laguna. She can be reached at [email protected]