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Decision to scuttle Tacoma psychiatric hospital rife with fear, short on logic

News Tribune - 12/21/2019

Dec. 21--It's well known that the need is critical.

With the current shortage of inpatient beds, among other behavioral health services, an untold number of Tacoma and Pierce County residents simply don't have the access to the mental health care they need and deserve.

We've known it for years and been reminded of it repeatedly -- and all too often tragically.

That's why the Tacoma City Council's decision Dec. 17 to potentially scuttle a needed 105-bed psychiatric hospital at South 19th and Proctor was so unexpected and, frankly, bewildering.

To the casual observer, the unanimous decision likely came out of nowhere.

To those intimately and painfully familiar with the holes and shortcomings in Pierce County's mental health system it came as a gut punch.

There's no other way to say it.

As The News Tribune'sDebbie Cockrell reported, the decision, as they so often do in local government, ostensibly hinged on a question of land use Tuesday night.

Signature Healthcare Services, a California-based company, wants to build its hospital just blocks from where Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital now stands.

To do it, Signature needs the City Council to rezone the area -- which, like Wellfound, is located in District 3.

That didn't happen.

The council, flatly and surprisingly, said no, rebuffing the the city hearing examiner in the process.

The rejection, which was led by District 3 City Council member Keith Blocker, was confounding for a variety of reasons.

For starters, there was the lockstep support it received at the 11th hour -- including, vocally, from Mayor Victoria Woodards.

The reasoning the two elected leaders provided served as the biggest red flag.

Blocker said Tuesday night that while he recognizes the need for more psychiatric beds in Tacoma and Pierce County, he has "huge concerns about placing and consolidating too many behavioral health centers in one location."

Woodards followed, adding that while she, too, understands the need, that "doesn't mean they all belong in District 3 nor do they all belong in the city of Tacoma."

However you parse it, the message and implications seem pretty clear:

A planned 105-bed psychiatric hospital in Tacoma isn't going forward because every single member of the City Council endorsed the misguided idea that the facility was a burden -- seemingly ignoring that the facility has the potential to save lives in process.

It was discussed as a matter of equity, for District 3 and the rest of the city.

In truth, it came off quintessentially NIMBY, intentional or not..

There's no other way to say it.

Certainly there are elements of truth to Blocker's argument.

For years, District 3, which includes Hilltop and parts of Central and South Tacoma, has been continually under-served and inequitably tasked with being home to far more than its fair share of human services providers.

The history doesn't lie, and as the city and county grapple with their response to homelessness, addiction, affordable housing and other crisis-level emergencies, there's no doubt that efforts to address these problems should be spread throughout the city and the region.

Broadly speaking, Blocker is right to push the issue, but let's also shoot straight for a moment: We're talking about a hospital here, not a jail or halfway house.

Plainly, lumping a psychiatric hospital into a broad definition of "services," with the obvious implication being that it would carry with it harmful impacts, seems retrograde and dangerous.

At the very least, it doesn't pass the smell test without something more than conjecture backing it up.

Days after Tuesday night's vote, Blocker stood firm, telling The News Tribune he believes District 3 already has one psychiatric hospital and doesn't need another.

While Blocker acknowledged he doesn't "know what the impacts" would be in having two psychiatric hospitals clustered in District 3, residents in the area are concerned, he's heard it, and it's his job is to represent them, he said.

Moreover, Blocker said, even if the hospital would ultimately be a benefit to his district, there are other areas of the city and county that need it more.

It's all about equity, he repeated.

"I'm not saying (the proposed hospital) is a negative thing. But if it's a positive thing, then put it somewhere else," Blocker said. "If your argument is that it's a positive thing, then I'm saying we'll pass on this positive thing, and let someone else have it.

"Let them deal with it."

Maybe that explanation rings true to some ears, but it certainly doesn't to mine -- especially since there are currently no plans to build a psychiatric hospital anywhere else in the county.

So what are we really to take from the council's decision Tuesday night?

Along with soundbites that seem destined to age poorly, it raises more questions than answers.

Are we supposed to be afraid of those who might seek service at a new psychiatric hospital?

Are we comfortable making potentially life-or-death decisions based on misconceptions or neighborhood hunches?

Is this really where things stand after years spent trying to de-stigmatize mental health?

I certainly hope not, but based on what we saw and heard this week, I'm afraid we might have a long way to go.

There's no other way to say it.

That really is something to be afraid of, for District 3 and beyond.

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