By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Liberty Island is the largest assisted-living facility in the Houston area. It offers housing as well as a weekday adult day-care program. Though the roof on the three-story, white-stone building is in disrepair, the interior is clean and inviting. Converted from a hotel and restaurant, it has 209 beds, a gymnasium and spacious dining halls where cafeteria-style meals are served three times daily.
Liberty Island has sheltered 136 Louisiana evacuees displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It was already full when director Aretha Johnson learned about the 16 men who had arrived together from Abstract House. Johnson and her staff of 12 set up temporary beds on the floor of the gymnasium and outfitted eight unused rooms with air conditioners, televisions and bedding. The men were registered, clothed and scheduled their medications.
Johnson says she charges residents on a sliding scale ranging from $850 to $2,000 a month. But some in the Abstract group arrived penniless, while others had only Red Cross checks for $360. She accepted $260 and advanced them $100 apiece. "We're a social service agency, not a business," she says.
The men say they like their rooms, which are simple and neat, with two or three beds, a dresser and a couple of mirrors. Knapsacks and trash bags filled with their belongings line the walls. They mostly stay in their rooms or sit out front and smoke. Once every few days, some of the guys venture out to a nearby burger joint or treat themselves to nachos at the bowling alley next door.
Not all of them get along. Patrick Pitchford, a sturdy-looking 41-year-old with tattoos covering his arms from shoulder to wrist, suffered a car crash ten years ago that put him in a coma for several months and permanently affected his equilibrium and motor skills. "We argued and fought and bickered the whole time," Pitchford says of the trip from New Orleans. Still, he says proudly, they protected one another. "We can fight among ourselves," he says, "but don't you mess with any one of us."
Douglass Heidelberg, who is 48, wears bright white sneakers and ties a purple bandanna through the belt loops of his faded jeans. Heidelberg likes to write poetry and philosophize about history and religion. At one time he was convinced that "Walt Whitman was communicating" through him. He believes fervently in the sacred powers of marijuana and transcendental meditation. The one topic he doesn't like to discuss is his illness. "I'm not a mental patient," he insists. "I'm a hippie."
Many members of the Abstract group agree that Richard Coburn's mood swings were the most difficult to deal with. Frequently hostile and aggressive, Coburn sometimes looks as though his eyes have been forcibly pried open. He's been institutionalized three times since fleeing New Orleans. Though perhaps unconsciously, Coburn, too, has a poetic streak. Recently at Liberty Island, during a lunch of chicken-fried steak, white bread, mashed potatoes and corn, Coburn reflected that Katrina is "Like a pinwheel / you blow on it / that's the hurricane / blue with white stripes."
As it turned out, hurricanes weren't finished with the Abstract House group yet. Two weeks after Katrina, Rita fired up on what seemed to be a collision course with Houston, the group's new home.
Johnson planned to take her residents to a shelter in San Antonio. The state furnished her with four Coach USA buses, each outfitted with air-conditioning and a toilet. Early September 22, 150 residents and four Liberty Island staffers boarded the buses.
They had barely left Harris County when a back tire on one of the buses blew and caught fire. Johnson, who was on a different bus, ran along Interstate 10 to help rescue the residents. "We went into sheer shock," Johnson says. "We had to literally pick people off the bus." They were fortunate that one resident, who carries an oxygen tank for her emphysema, was riding on a different bus. The next morning, 23 nursing home evacuees from Bellaire died outside Dallas in a bus explosion accelerated by the oxygen tanks onboard.
It took the Liberty Island residents 28 hours to travel 200 miles to San Antonio. They first went to a vacant Wal-Mart that was being used as a shelter, then piled back into their buses to stay in a facility for people with special needs.
It was there that Johnson suffered her own meltdown. Eighteen of her residents were unable to get their medications and began to panic. The stress caused another resident to begin having seizures. Johnson says she felt helpless, anxious and humiliated. For perhaps the first time since she opened Liberty Island 20 years ago, Johnson broke down in tears in front of the residents and snapped at some of them.
After returning from San Antonio, Johnson says, she was so distraught that she stayed in bed for three days. She can't imagine the feeling of loss experienced by her residents. "Not only do they have a very devastating illness, but now everything that defined them in their previous structure is gone," she says. "They're super-needy now. Their sense of belonging has been shaken up. They've lost their identities."
Johnson's experiences during the Rita evacuation have led her to relax some of the policies at Liberty Island. Normally, her residents must participate in a set schedule: out of bed by 7 a.m., clean room, take care of personal hygiene, breakfast by 9 a.m., participate in programs and back in room at 3 p.m. to rest before dinner. Now, she lets people stay in their rooms, under the covers, with the door shut all day. In the past, if a fight broke out, the people involved were relocated. Since Katrina, there have been a couple of knockdowns between residents. In one instance, a chair was thrown. But Johnson lets it slide with a stern reprimand. "Things I would usually put people out for, I'm not," she says.