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Opinion: No Room at the Inn

Poli Psy


Published February 15, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.
Updated May 31, 2016 at 5:40 p.m.

The cookies lay uneaten at the Lakeview Union Elementary School on Friday evening, February 3. This was no feel-good gathering.

A third of Greensboro (pop. 770, tripled in summer) was meeting representatives of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, which wants to convert the former Lakeview Inn to a residential treatment facility for eight mentally ill patients moving from the hospital to the world.

After rejecting 50 properties, NKHS was smitten by the inn - its capacious grace, broad vistas and meticulous, code-compliant historic restoration. And who wouldn't adore Greensboro, a perfect cluster of white clapboard on the shores of Lake Caspian, anchored by the grand general store Willey's?

On January 19, NKHS and the landowner agreed to terms. The next day, Executive Director Eric Grims informed the selectboard. On January 24, he talked to the Caledonian Record, whence the rest of Greensboro found out. "There seems to be a good positive energy surrounding the project," the reporter paraphrased Grims.

He could not have been more wrong.

Letters flew to the agency's office. Lakeview neighbor Lucas Lonegren posted a blog, where information-sharing turned to fulminating, then to organizing. Lonegren deleted flames, but contributors who voiced support for NKHS were promptly denounced - or ignored.

By February 3, rage was hot. The audience fidgeted as Grims discoursed on square footage, and Division Director Cathy Rousse on "inspiring creativity in people whose creativity has been thwarted."

Then it spoke.

Argument was both eminently rational and surfeited with emotion. Everyone endorsed the "concept" of community-based recovery - just someplace else in town (though no place is available) and not at Greensboro's "gateway." The next-door neighbor, a planner, pronounced the site "inappropriate," the word of the evening.

People felt blindsided, though it's hard to say they could have been told earlier.

They were outraged as taxpayers, though Grims explained that at $1.4 million, the inn is cheaper than new construction.

Some fear was bald. Warren Hill read a headline: Man Pleads Innocent to Vermont Shooting Spree. "Can you guarantee me that a person like this will not end up here?" he demanded.

Anger turned defiant. "You could not have chosen a worse place to try to buy," threatened Andy Dales, representing the 500-member second-home-owners' Greensboro Association.

Empathy swelled momentarily when Elizabeth Leopold, former attorney and daughter of Greensboro, confessed, "I'm a client of the system," with three suicide attempts and two involuntary commitments. She saw "nothing wrong" with a group home at Greensboro's gateway. Neither might others, if NKHS could deliver only patients like the patrician Liz, and not like the grizzled male stranger growling over the cookies.

Arguments contradicted each other.

The town was too rural to serve this population. But the facility should be further outside the village - more rural.

The agency could not guarantee the town's safety. But learning that no dangerous patients would be accepted and all would be monitored 24/7, two staff per resident, people grew suspicious: If they're not dangerous, why so much supervision?

A beloved building was being "taken from the economy." Grims avowed that NKHS pays its taxes in every host town. Hill responded, "Sir, I do not believe it."

The meeting was billed as "informational," but few seemed eager to be informed, much less persuaded.

It would be easiest to chalk up Greensboro's reaction to fear of the mentally ill, whom many wrongly associate with violence, compounded by the pique of a monied summer community accustomed to getting its way. No doubt, these are in the mix.

But working-class communities also resist group homes. Institutions change neighborhoods, and nobody likes change, especially when the status quo is as copacetic as in Greensboro.

What else is going on?

For one thing, democracy is frustrated. The Caledonian presented a done deal; the state, having screwed up in Waterbury, wants Greensboro to trust it. Greensboro would sooner trust its local government. But while Grims called the selectboard, he doesn't need its consent or, with eight residents, even a zoning variance.

Property, which ordinarily affords the summer people formidable sway over Greensboro society, now is the problem. Lake-home owners once prohibited sales to Jews and other undesirables. Now faced with another perceived undesirable, they are at the mercy of one private landowner.

"A bigger social dilemma" is at play, too, comments Janice Irvine, a University of Massachusetts sociologist. "Since deinstitutionalization, people have either been dumped into the streets to become homeless or placed in community homes, which are difficult for every community. As a society, we have

not found a way either to integrate or to separate out the mentally ill."

Greensboro is not letting its emotions overtake its reason. Emotions are increasingly legitimized as public argument. The president acts from his gut. Policy is mobilized by hatred - of sex offenders, terrorists, even opposing party members. Certain emotions, though, are more legitimate than others. Cynicism is called realism, while the hope and trust that Rousse invoked are dismissed as sucker-bait. "These are nice concepts," one resident told her, "but they're pie in the sky."

NKHS doesn't want to move where it's not wanted. But the state is desperate to shutter the state hospital, and another proposed facility was gunned down in Vergennes.

If it does move in, the agency promises to work with the community to find its tolerance. Some local supporters, such as physician Mark Lichtenstein and Chelsea school principal Carl Stein, have volunteered to help.

If it does move in, what might happen is what happened with civil unions, another passionately opposed change: nothing.

Or, something good could happen. "I hope you will open your hearts to your unwanted brothers and sisters, your extended family," state representative and "psychiatric survivor" Ann Donahue implored at the Friday meeting.

They might not get the chance. By Tuesday, claiming to represent a majority, the selectboard wrote the health commissioner and NKHS asking them to inform Greensboro, "in writing and as soon as possible," that the plan has been abandoned.