Not In My Back Yard

We live on a private lake, in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners’ association. There are rules here, and the residents are expected to follow them. For the most part, it works pretty well. Once in awhile, we catch someone who doesn’t live here fishing, or using a dumpster to dispose of their trash. If problems arise, we can contact members of the association board, and there is usually a process in place to help solve the problem. Recently, however, the board (and community) were challenged to come up with a solution to a problem never before encountered.

Enter Jeannie (not real name). I first met Jeannie while walking my puppy. She was visiting with a neighbor, and the neighbor asked me to join them as she wanted to meet my dog. Jeannie was talking as I approached them, and I waited for a lull in the conversation. I kept waiting. And waiting. Jeannie was speaking loudly and quickly, and there was no lull. Finally, my neighbor interrupted her, and asked me about the dog. Jeannie left the conversation abruptly. After she had gone, my neighbor told me that she was living in an abandoned shack (on the lake) with no plumbing, no electricity and no water. She told me that others had been trying to “help” Jeannie by providing wood, food and access to their well. She went on to explain that Jeannie was the victim of an unfair dismissal from her position as an English teacher at a community college. She told me that the administration of the college had fired her due to her mental illness, and in fact, had her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

I am not interested in local gossip, and try my best to avoid it. However, I kept hearing about Jeannie. She seemed to be the subject of many conversations, with many different people. Eventually, a controversy developed around whether it would help Jeannie more to “enable” her to continue living in an unhealthy environment (bringing food, etc.), or to contact local authorities for assistance.

I have spent most of my life advocating for the rights of mentally ill members in my community. I have spoken and written about the stigma of mental illness, and I have always believed that for the most part, people with mental illness have a right to live in the community. I have helped to develop programs that make it easier for a mentally ill individual to be successful living outside of institutions. How ironic that when someone with mental illness lives down the street, I am uncomfortable.

Neighbors told me that they had contacted “authorities”, but they refused to help Jeannie because they believed she was dangerous. She is rumored to have a gun. And she is very unstable. That is a frightening combination of circumstances. So she stays in an unlivable “home”, with her German shepherd Hunter. Every day she walks around the lake with Hunter off leash. One day we were driving and saw Hunter on a street relatively far from where Jeannie walks. Concerned, we drove around the lake until we saw her alone, walking. We told her that we had seen her dog on a busy street, far from where she was, and asked if she would like a ride to bring him back, closer to home. She said she did not want to go get him, and was certain he would return on his own. I asked if she wanted me to try to get him into the car, so that I could bring him to her. She told me he would never get into a car, and no thank you. She was right. I saw him later, and he was again walking by her side.

It was about that time that I first heard the screaming. I was walking a few blocks from her house, and heard a woman crying, and screaming expletives. She sounded as if she was in true danger, and she sounded desperate. I had been told that neighbors often heard her crying, so I was not as alarmed as I would have been otherwise. But the screaming was clearly from someone in distress.

As more people heard about her, concerns grew. And rumors became more hostile. Neighbors thought that if she had no water, she had no sewer, so where was all that stuff going? Into the lake? The soil? Then came the signs. The first was simply a wooden board with a sad face painted on it. She nailed it to a tree in her yard. Then came signs implicating the people who had fired her from the community college. Next, signs about crooked local politicians were put into her front yard. Then the signs got more strange. A large, prominent sign with the statement “Jesus Raped Me” was placed in front of all the others. The signs continued until there were probably 25 resting against each other, a tree, and a fence. Some were vulgar and offensive, others just sad.

The owners of the house next door decided to put their home on the market. But, of course, with all of the signs and screaming, it didn’t get much attention. One of our friends moved away, and the local gossip was that the family could not stand the screaming. The next thing I heard was that Jeannie had violated a restraining order from the neighbors across the street. She admitted to standing in the road and video taping the family while they sat around a fire. The children in the family were frightened, so the father (a police officer in a different community) called the police and had her arrested.

While Jeannie was in jail, the health department representative came out to inspect her “house”, and it was condemned. I heard that the reasons were the lack of plumbing and lack of electricity. Neighbors didn’t know the length of jail sentence, and wondered what would happen when Jeannie was released. Where would she live? She has no family or friends other than those in our community who have helped her. After the house was condemned, the signs were removed from her yard except for one remaining that is on a tree. It is the sad face.

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