Common Cents

Area housing for the mentally ill remains deplorable, but a state subsidy might improve conditions

Every day, Maverick Chevalier, who seems to be a courtly, gentle man, 41 years of age, fishes his own feces out of the toilet, puts it in a plastic bag and stores it in a pail with a lid on it. When the bucket fills up, he takes it down to the Dumpster.

Now Chevalier, who is mentally ill, picks out his own "doo-doo," as he calls it, not because he's irrational, but because his apartment complex managers are refusing to fix his toilet. They tell him he just didn't maintain it well enough, didn't keep the stains off it. He's tried to scrub away the rust and slime, used all kinds of bleach, and with a background in janitorial service, he knows something about cleaning. But the toilet clogs up if he tries to flush solid waste. If he reports it to management, they'll send someone to fix it, but it'll usually take a whole day, and that means he can't use his toilet at all.

He says managers won't clean his carpet, either. He's been waiting three months. "They say they busy; they got other things they're trying to accomplish," he says with a certain air of resignation. Mental health workers have advised him to get out. After six years, though, Chevalier is reluctant to move. "I've been here so long and I'm so secure here," he says.

Maverick Chevalier, a paranoid schizophrenic, has carved a tolerable world for himself out of unacceptable conditions. He could do worse. Which doesn't make what he puts up with defensible, but it does reflect the sorry state of life in Houston, Texas, for someone who is mentally ill and trying to negotiate the days and months ahead with nothing more than a $500 monthly SSI check.

Aretha Johnson operates Liberty Island Community Center on Boone Road. Converted from a former hotel and restaurant, it has 209 beds, a gymnasium, swimming pool, beautiful dining halls and sparkling hallways. Rooms are equipped with used furniture from hotel chains such as Marriott.

Liberty Island is the largest assisted-living facility in the Houston area. It offers housing as well as a weekday adult day-care program. It provides medication, structure, cleanliness and meals. It employs 12 maids. Stopped-up toilets are fixed. Carpets and floors are cleaned regularly. Aretha Johnson wants it clean, and besides, the state, which does regular inspections, might otherwise shut them down.

But Liberty Island is not filled up. There is no waiting list. Even when it cuts the monthly price of $1,500 to a rock-bottom $750 -- Johnson says that's the break-even point -- it's still too much for the folks without family, without independent income.

Call it the $250-a-month gap. A gap between third-world living (right here in the U.S. of A.) and a chance at dignity.


Tom Mitchell is the very active director of ACT, the Assertive Community Treatment program in Harris County. Part of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, ACT assigns its ten-member teams of social workers, nurses, counselors and doctors to provide around-the-clock support for its mentally ill clients.

It begins with the medicine, making sure that clients take theirs. Of the 300 or so clients that ACT's three teams work with, 35 of the patients see an ACT person every single day for their medication. For two clients, that's twice a day.

Beyond that, ACT team members help clients find housing, take them to the supermarket, to the dentist, the doctor. Those who have problems are pulled in before their troubles escalate to full-scale crises. This not infrequently brings ACT into contact with the owners or managers of the places where the mentally ill live.

"Personal care homes, some of them won't put up with any behavior at all. They want them to act like these perfect angels, and if they talk back to them or do anything, they kick them out. These people are mentally ill, after all," director Mitchell says. "There's even a few cases where we strongly suspect that they just look for a reason to kick them out and they always do it within the first week the person gets there, and then they keep their whole check. And then it's a battle to get it back."

Housing for the mentally ill has always been a problem, Mitchell says, and in Harris County, it's certainly not getting any better. "We run into a bind sometimes with people. They get kicked out of where they were living and something happens, they get kicked out on the street. And we have to scramble to find a place for them in a shelter somewhere."

A member of the ACT advisory board, Dale Ramey, has been pushing hard for an agreement between ACT and Liberty Island, where her son Tim is a resident and an ACT client. "The dedication of that woman over there is incredible," Ramey says of Johnson. "She sincerely cares about the people living there."

Mitchell favors a proposal for Liberty Island to set aside some beds for the newly homeless mentally ill. These are not the same people heading to the reopened and streamlined (now six beds) NeuroPsychiatric Center or the Ben Taub emergency room. Their crisis isn't a psychiatric one; it's housing.

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