In the 80s I worked for Rethink Mental Illness developing and managing new supported living schemes. I worked with a number of housing associations and but also with a couple of more enlightened private landlords.
It was with one such landlord that we turned a rather run down semi in Stoke-on-Trent into a great place for some young local men to move back into their community. It gave them some space to be themselves and support to continue with their recovery.
I remember walking down the drive of No. 32 one day after meeting with builders at the house and being confronted by a very aggressive man with a rather purple face. He strode right into my personal space, leant in….until his face was right up to mine….and screamed:
“If you think I’m letting a load of those people move in next door to me and my family then you’ve got another think coming! My kids will never be able to play in the garden again. My mother is disabled…why should she have to put up with this? I’m going to write to Virginia Bottomley. You have no right to move these people in here. I demand to know what exactly is wrong with each one. Don’t you realise they are dangerous? This place will open over my dead body!”
And with that he turned and marched down the drive…slamming the gate behind him.
Unfortunately, whilst this is a very extreme response, the sentiment behind it is not at all uncommon. Every time I have been to a planning meeting to respond to opposition to new housing for individuals with a mental health need there has been some sort of Mr Angry there. Usually they have some self control and will talk about their garden being overlooked or there not being enough parking. But when you speak to those concerned about living close to anyone with mental health problems it always boils down to one issue. Well two actually. …fear and ignorance.
Most people seem convinced that they’ve never met anyone with a mental health need and that these new neighbours will be a dangerous threat to their children, their own personal safety and to the value of their home.
Now luckily Mr Angry (as the lads who moved into the house came to know him) actually kept himself to himself most of the time. At first so did his wife, his son and his mother. But gradually, and only once Mr Angry’s car was safely on the D road, they started to use the garden, nodded hello – first to me and then to the lads – if they were passing in the street; and let their lives get back to normal.
Gradually they got to know their new neighbours as people. One who played guitar. One who rode a motorbike. One who went to a drop-in every day and who you could set your clock by. One who liked to sit in the garden. The more they saw them as people the less they feared them.
One day as I arrived at the house Mr Angry’s mother was just closing the gate of No. 32. She had very bad arthritis. In one twisted hand she held a tin opener and in the other an opened tin of beans.
“My daughter-in-law was out so I just popped round to ask one of the lads if he would help me open these beans.” she said.
That was the moment I knew we’d cracked it.
Soon there were small gifts at Christmas.
A phone call one night to let me know a small tree had blown down onto the roof of No. 32.
Two nice suits that Mr Angry couldn’t fit into any more.
Candles during a power cut when the A50 widening was going on.
Their children would come round to collect conkers in the back garden.
Now the young men at No. 32 weren’t a scary unknown. They were real, rather ordinary people and all that fear had faded away.