Crystel Baye and her family were looking to move up in the world as they stretched their dollars to leave a manufactured home in Orchards and buy a two-story house in West Hazel Dell.
Sure, living on the corner of Northwest 78th Street means tolerating lots of nearby traffic. But it was still an improvement for the Baye family, with children ages 3, 7 and 12. Baye said they mostly love the neighborhood and their proximity to parks, churches and public schools.
What they don't love is the house directly across 78th from their cul de sac. Given the behaviors she's seen over there — and, occasionally, right on her front porch and even coming through her doorway — Baye said she thought it must be a group home for people who are mentally ill or struggling with addiction.
She's almost right.
The house is a haven for mentally ill people who likely would be homeless if it wasn't for landlady Catherine Cook. But it's not a managed "group home," according to numerous sources The Columbian checked with — including one man who lives at another Cook property, and sings her praises as a compassionate and charitable landlady who cares about people with no place left to go.
Cook declined several offers to be interviewed about the house, but renter "Joe," who didn't want his real name used, said she "steps up and gives a home to people who can't rent from anybody else for one reason or another."
"Catherine is one of the nicest women I've known," he said. "She reached out a hand to me to help me."
Joe said mental illness has diverted him from a career in business and from achievements such as owning property.
"I couldn't find information about my illness for a long time," he said. "I have an associate degree and a bachelor's degree in business. I should be owning my own place, but I can't."
Cook's renters have mental health caseworkers who "work hand-in-hand with Cathy. Every mental facility probably has some strings attached to Cathy," Joe said.
He insisted that Cook's renters are "perfectly harmless or Cathy wouldn't have them there. She keeps a pretty tight rein on us, there are no drugs or alcohol."
Compassion and alarm
But Baye begs to differ. In the past three years, she said, too many residents of the Cook house at 7715 N.W. 10th Ave. — many have come and gone — have alarmed the whole neighborhood with antics that are scary, to say the least.
It began in startling fashion three years ago, she said, with pounding on her front door at 11 p.m. A woman from the Cook house held out a dirty paper cup and begged for milk. Shocked, Baye tried to eject her visitor — who became irate and started cursing.
That set the stage for the next few years, which Baye said included many disturbing incidents — such as unwelcome visitors on her doorstep who required police escort to leave; passing schoolchildren treated to angry profanities; cars that stop by and quickly take off again; and a woman "wandering" the traffic lanes of wide, sloping, speedy 78th Street. That's just a sample.
"The police are at this address multiple times per week, sometimes multiple times a day," Baye said. "The police and the neighbors are forced to baby-sit the residents against our will and at the expense of our children's health and well-being. I don't see how they are allowed to operate like this."
But the Clark County Sheriff's Office has told her: Just keep calling, and we'll keep escorting them back. Most of the time, according to Sgt. K.C. Kasberg, there's nothing criminal going on.
"All the patrol officers on the west side are well aware of that house. Very rarely is a crime committed," he said.
Baye's complaint goes beyond your typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) gripe. She has compassion for her neighbors' plight, she said — especially when an elderly man begged neighbors for food and money, claiming his housemates had stolen his — and has tolerated their behaviors for years.
"We have several family members who have struggled with mental illness," she said. "But would I have wanted my family members to be renting there? No way."
No stranger to controversy
Cook, who lives alongside a different group of her renters in Ridgefield, has a history of housing the reviled and marginalized. She made headlines about a decade ago for renting to sex offenders — who have the right to live where they want, like anybody else, once they have served their time. Cook insisted at the time that renting even to Level 3 offenders, who are assessed as most likely to re-offend, helps society by keeping those folks off the street.
They've paid their debt and deserve a second chance, she argued. Some state- and county-level corrections officials agreed, saying Cook was performing a difficult public service and taking serious heat for it.
It was never a popular point of view with neighbors, who protested loudly and even convinced the county board of equalization to lower their property values. Cook was ousted as a Girl Scout leader. Eventually, the state stopped doing business with Cook, finding she had failed to follow rules that barred contact between sex offenders and minors.
The people who rent at 7715 N.W. 10th Ave. are not sex offenders, according to the database maintained by the Clark County Sheriff's Office. They're simply low-income renters with high barriers to getting housed anywhere else.
"It has actually improved a lot" since Baye complained to the county, West Hazel Dell Neighborhood Association leader Ila Stanek said, because law enforcement is keeping a constant eye on the place. "It's not a legitimate group home of any kind. It's just kind of a mess, and it looks like the Dickens, but I don't know how to get it figured out."
"It has quieted down," Baye agreed. "My concern is that's only temporary."
Nuisances, not crimes
Discrimination against people with mental illness is illegal under federal and state fair housing laws that consider mental illness a disability. But that doesn't mean landlords can't weigh their own usual standards and criteria against a potential renter's case history.
"Most private landlords are unwilling to rent to people who have had problems in the past — like bad credit, evictions, criminal records," said Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless. "When a landlord does step up to fill that void, it brings a lot of these people under one roof."
As of earlier this month, Kasberg said, the Clark County Sheriff's Office had been to the house 28 times this year.
"We go into that house all the time," he said.
On one hand, officers do not find "drugs lying around all over the place," he said.
On the other hand, two recent calls were about drug overdoses, and their subjects were sped to the hospital.
"By the time we get (to the house), there's no evidence left," Kasberg said, which underscores the police's dilemma in dealing with such a place.
"We understand it's a nuisance for the neighborhood, but there's little or no regulations about" renting to people with mental illness, he said. The residents "have every right to be out in public. They have their civil rights. Rarely is a crime being committed that we can prove when we arrive."
Even something such as bursting into a startled neighbor's home uninvited?
"If somebody goes into somebody else's home that can be illegal, but in order to prove a crime's been committed, you need motive, opportunity and intent," said Kasberg. "(For) people with diminished mental capacity, it may be difficult to prove."
Silver said people with severe mental health issues face many life challenges, including worse overall health, likelihood of homelessness and shorter life expectancy by as much as 20 years. Another of those challenges can be "interacting with people in a successful way," Silver said.
Stable housing and supportive services "can be therapeutic for people living with mental health issues," he said. "With these sorts of services we never have enough. If they get everything they need, they tend to be good neighbors and they're able to move forward with their lives."