Board and Care(less)

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

"Of all the shortages in the mental health system, housing is the greatest," according to Betsy Swartz, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston, an advocacy group.

But she isn't certain that licensing of board-and-cares will help the situation. "If you were to register all of the board-and-care industry, many of them wouldn't be able to stay in business. So the people staying with them would potentially be homeless.

"Some need to be closed. Nobody should be there. But there are others that are okay."

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.

She's echoed by Evelyn Johnson, with the Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Houston, who says: "The No. 1 problem is that there is very, very, very insufficient housing for people with mental illness. For several years we've advocated for more and better housing … but if we attempt to close those places down, those folks may have to go under the bridge."

Readily admitting that some of the places in Harris County are "dirty and filthy," Johnson says they are better than nothing.

In a best-world scenario, Swartz says, mental patients who need the help would be in places like Safe Havens, a well-supervised group home run by the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. And a visit to Safe Havens shows a clean, attractive facility in Midtown, a set of one-bedroom apartments with microwaves and small refrigerators in each room to encourage those staying there to take care of themselves. But it is transitional living, not a permanent stop and, like most of the best places in Harris County, small -- only 25 rooms. It has funding to operate for only one more year.

Dr. Steve Schnee is the executive director of MHMRA and the man with the numbers, which he employs in appeals for funding: "The state of Texas will spend an average of $14.61 per capita for the mentally ill in the year 2000. In Harris County the average is $11.65. For Harris County to even get to the average, we're short $9.8 million a year." The national average is $26.98. For Harris County to reach the national average would take close to $51 million a year.

At one community meeting, Schnee asked recipients of his agency's services how they might better serve them. One man told Schnee, "I need a lock." Schnee didn't understand. The man went on to say that his room at a group home had been broken into several times, his possessions stolen. He couldn't sleep at night because he was so worried, so scared, and that what he really needed was a lock for his door. "How can this man be stable?" Schnee asks rhetorically.

David Clark, another mental health consumer and advocate, is one of the lucky ones and knows it. He lives in Tomball Pines, a 21-unit complex that provides the means for him to manage his manic depressive illness and work part-time. It took him two years on a waiting list to get in, and he says there's no way he'll ever leave.

He dismisses board-and-cares, saying, "Most are neither board nor care." In most cases, he says, you have an absentee owner who insulates himself from what's going on by having an employee take care of boarders.

"In most so-called board-and-care homes they turn you out and they won't let you stay there during the daytime. So where do you go? You don't have a place to bathe; you're wearing ugly, dirty clothes," Clark says. Most stores invite such people to leave; about the only place that leaves them alone, Clark says, is a library.

"We enable our housing problem to continue. The bad news is that most of this property is dangerous, ill kempt and dehumanizing. The good news is that we have plenty of it."

Lee Ligon, and her second husband, Gordon, spend a lot of time with Darrell, but living with him doesn't work. He'd been an employee in Spring in his dad's underground-sprinkler business, but the two of them couldn't get along. So Ligon and her husband moved Darrell to the Southern Oaks Apartments, 6353 Skyline, on January 1. When they checked on him in mid-January, someone else was staying in his apartment and Darrell was gone.

Piecing together Darrell's whereabouts is a bit like trying to sort out his brain. From a hospital bill she received months later, Ligon found out Darrell was admitted to the Bayou City Medical Center, 6700 Bellaire, on January 15 and was released on January 26. His records said he was psychotic, unable to function. He had been transferred there from Ben Taub's short-term crisis psychiatric center, which said Darrell was responding to internal stimuli and had outbursts of negative behavior after he had checked himself in there. The good news was there were no drugs or alcohol in his system. The bad news, by Ligon's accounting, is that Darrell was misdiagnosed as a bipolar or manic depressive personality.

Bayou City personnel told Darrell he needed to be somewhere that would monitor his medication, his mother says. That's why she can't understand why he ended up at the Horizons Group (previously known as Texas Community Care) at 4930 East Old Spanish Trail, a board-and-care that is neither licensed nor monitored by the state, and is not supposed to be giving out medication to anyone. Bayou City did not return telephone calls from the Houston Press.

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