Board and Care(less)

When it comes to housing the mentally disabled, is better-than-nothing good enough?

The strange man with the long hair and beard stood outside her home -- dirty, disheveled and in hospital scrubs on that Saturday morning in April. He seemed off, out of kilter with the world. Lee Ligon didn't know him. She was on her way to teach a college class and needed to get going.

Then he began speaking, and with equal parts horror, relief and resignation, Ligon realized that this bit of human flotsam was her first-born child.

"He'd been on the streets. I did not recognize him," she says.

Darrell Jones was an easy target for people looking to make money off the mentally ill.
Deron Neblett
Darrell Jones was an easy target for people looking to make money off the mentally ill.

His own clothes, except for a pair of underwear he was holding in one hand, were gone. His furniture, his '91 Mazda and his money were gone.

Ligon had been looking for Darrell since he'd disappeared from his apartment in mid-January. But disappearances and disappointments had become a steady part of their relationship since the day, 15 years ago, when the then-22-year-old college student had wrecked his motorcycle and suffered a closed-head injury that had changed him, irrevocably it would seem.

So, in a move that perhaps only people who've been through years of taking care of relatives with severe mental problems can understand, she called a cab.

She told the driver to take Darrell to the Harris County Psychiatric Center. (Darrell always likes staying there, she says.) When the driver asked what to do there, she told him not to worry, that Darrell "knows the routine."

There was no fatted calf, no robes of fine raiment in which to adorn this prodigal son. The nice folks at HCPC could hose Darrell down, get the stink off him, clean him up. Darrell would get his medicine and his structure and would be safe till his mother could figure out what to do next. He couldn't stay there forever; there's a limit of about ten days, but a stop there had bought her some time.

All she had to do was get him to retrace his steps of the past several weeks. This from a man who hears voices that aren't always there and whose speech sometimes dissolves into incoherence as the electrical connections short-circuit in his head.

But as usual, he remembered his mama. He'd come home to her. And once again, she was going to do what she had to do to make this right, knowing all the while that things, of course, will never be right again.

What Ligon was to discover was that in the two and a half months her son had been missing, he'd spent time in a hospital, he'd been homeless. And he'd been packed in a room with three other men in what's called a board-and-care home, something that exists at a special unlicensed level lower than a personal care home.

And it was thanks to a newfound "friend" at this board-and-care home, a little white frame house on the industrial east side, that Lee Ligon believes her son Darrell had all his possessions stolen from him and was recruited for a monthlong medical experiment that dosed him with drugs for schizophrenics, not knowing about his head injury.

Darrell and others like him, you see, are mentally ill adults who have trouble living on their own but are too sane to meet the requirements for extended stays in any of Harris County's relatively few psychiatric facilities. They bounce from shelters to psychiatric facilities to halfway houses to the streets. Sometimes they end up in prison, their mental illness criminalized. Along the way they meet people who offer to help them manage their lives.

Proving once again that if there is a misery in the world, someone will see it and figure out a way to make a buck off it.

"In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy instituted a policy allowing mental patients to go back into the community. Unfortunately, it was an unfunded mandate. So when I got out of the Austin state home, I got a pack of Camels, 25 cents for a phone call and a ride on the Greyhound. We called that 'Greyhound therapy,' " says Mike Harvey, a consumer and advocate of mental health services for more than 40 years.

Harvey, who is manic depressive, is well acquainted with the halfway house system: Clients hand over their disability checks and get money for cigarettes each week. For a long time, he says, the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation okayed these places, till they got too bad and the licensed personal care home was born, which requires higher accountability.

But as state Representative Garnet Coleman observes, "You can put any rule and regulation in place and people will always find a way around it." The Houston Democrat is known for leading efforts in the Texas Legislature for more funding for mental illness needs. But Texas still continues to trail in this area, 43rd in per capita spending on mental illness nationally, and there aren't enough places and it isn't enough money.

If you give a mental patient a roof over his head, food and an opportunity to work, his chances of making it go up exponentially, Harvey says. But that roof is one of the greatest stumbling blocks in Harris County and one that divides health care professionals.

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