AYLMER, CANADA – I have had an opportunity to see the recent move of 33 rooming-house residents from Toronto to Aylmer, a transfer equated by some as Toronto “dumping its trash” into rural Ontario, through the eyes of personal experience. My family owned and operated a private rest home for the better part of 20 years, with tenants, patients as we called them, very similar to those at the Aylmer home run by Anne Borden Maxwell.

Names such as Jerry, Barbara and Steve were not of ex-psychiatric patients as much as they were of extended family. They offered me an education as valuable as that from any university. Relating with them and caring for them taught me that despite our differences, all people have common needs, and it’s the responsibility of the “mentally well” to ensure they’re met.

While a host of questions surround 235 Talbot St. E., most disturbing to me are the No Trespassing signs a Free Press reporter and I faced when recently wishing to visit. Reluctantly, approval was granted. But putting up the signs was like waving red flags wildly. Is it trespassing to speak with people who are well cared for?

Visits aren’t common to begin with. Families of the mentally ill, dealing with disappointment and often denial, find it easier to leave their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, in conditions that at times reflect Victorian England, not late 20thcentury Canada, warehoused conveniently out of sight and out of mind.

Government promises of community funding during our era of increasing deinstitutionalization aren’t worth much more. Moving the mentally ill into the community, for whatever motive, has actually been under way for 30 years, and the province never has picked up the slack. Some even question in what fashion it should.

“The battle is this:” wrote one Hamilton tenant in one of hundreds of submissions to Ernie Lightman, author of a respected industry report. “Who gets to define my life? Who gets to work things out for me? Am I sitting in a room where virtually everybody believes it’s all right for a bunch of service people to define my life, that in fact the role of government is to create more damn services that will define my life? Only I can figure out how things work for me.”

Lightman was commissioned to investigate unlicensed rest (rooming) homes after resident Joseph Kendall, in 1985, was assaulted and killed by another tenant in a former home in Orillia. Lightman’s report followed the then-longest coroner’s inquest in Ontario.

Among his recommendations: ** Register rest homes so it’s known who exists (not to be confused with licensing nursing homes); ** De-link home owners from being care givers, eliminating a built-in, seller-buyer power imbalance; ** Make reporting of abuse mandatory by law; ** Create a provincial tribunal overseeing a tenants’ bill of rights, and offer a 1-800 line for complaints; ** Request local groups such as churches to interact with homes, and offer them limited funds.

None of these break the government’s bank. Yet only one of 148 recommendations protecting residents under the Landlord-Tenants Act have been implemented. There are obvious benefits to this, such as protection from wrongful eviction, but it seems to me the suits in Toronto have it backwards even on this one. The problem is not keeping some of these people in. It’s getting them out.

While the severely ill need a stable home in protection from the harsh vicissitudes of unrestrained market forces, others need formal empowerment for better control over their lives, including where, how and with whom they live.

Sadly, Queen’s Park prefers to stay away. That’s why community groups and neighbors must now, more than ever, ensure the common rights most of us take for granted are available to those without a voice.

RIGHTS, COURTESIES:

The courtesy of being called one’s own name, the right not to be physically or emotionally intimidated, the right not to be exploited for labor, the right to proper clothing and food, the right that personal property, including spending money, not be stolen, and freedom to leave the property when appropriate were issues all too real for residents in my family home. And true today for the 48,000 or more vulnerable adults living in non-regulated homes.

Some are good. And it’s easy for charges to come from those not aware of the day-to-day realities operators face. The business is not for the feeble of heart. Still, one of the most basic needs of human beings is to have a decent place to live. At Borden that means trashing the No Trespassing signs.

That will open the way for the community to take interest and build relationships with both staff and residents. How about a casserole? Barbecue? Who can supervise?

Lightman pointed out, very accurately, the mere flow of people in and out of these homes will prevent the abuse none of us want our own family to experience.

The fondest memory I have from home was gathering patients with me in watching Leo Buscaglia on PBS. The warm, passionate professor from the University of Southern California began a Love Class in the early ’70s,then lectured from the collective of the hundreds who became interested students.

He would say things like this: “Scientists are discovering that to live, as if to live and love were one, is the only way of life for human beings, because, indeed, this is the way of life which the innate nature of man demands.”

I always hoped the good professor’s messages would be understood by the patients I invited into his company. I believe they were. Too bad we all weren’t there.