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By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Craig Hlavaty
The No. 1 definition for the word "mad" according to Webster's is "mentally disturbed; deranged," and David Clark has been that. Bipolar and sometimes prone to the mood swings that medication doesn't always contain, Clark has been mad.
Today, though, he is working on the second definition of mad, as in "greatly provoked or irritated; enraged." Enraged, yes, he's fully enraged.
Clark's mad because he says he and the other people who live in Section 8-11 housing in Baytown are being treated differently because they are mentally ill. Treated like rebellious teens or, even worse, like babies. His complaints:
They're being walked in on by the complex manager.
They're being told to get off their porches by eight o'clock at night and to go back inside their individual units.
They have a beautiful community room, but it is locked shut most of the time.
As one resident, who did not want her name used, put it: "At first I thought it was okay, but it seems more like a lockdown. There are so many rules, and the rules are changing all the time. It's more like living in a psych ward."
Clark got mad and called the nonprofit Advocacy Inc., which advocates for the legal rights of people with disabilities in Texas. Two weeks later, a mobile crisis van from the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County was sent out to check on him. He calls it retaliation. Others say they are concerned about his behavior; they think Clark is manic and needs help.
He says that's just a convenient excuse. Yes, it's true he stopped taking his medication. He says his doctor told him he doesn't need it. And yes, he agrees he's more aggressive. He doesn't necessarily see that as bad.
"Yes, this is probably more like I would have been if I had not had a mental illness. Those drugs they give you blunt everything. Mental patients generally don't stand up for themselves," Clark says. Besides, he says, he's been battling for mental health rights for years, long before he stopped taking pills.
Clark signed a release form opening up his medical records to the Houston Press. But psychiatrist Ted Krell's office can't find them; their file clerk quit and everything is a jumble. They can confirm that Clark had three visits, but not what was said.
David Clark may or may not be mad in all senses of the word, but he is not stupid. His Parkinson's may be debilitating, but he gets around where he needs to go. He may be increasingly aggravating, strident and shrill.
But that doesn't make him wrong -- at least not about everything.
The Pecan Village apartment complex out on Cedar Bayou Road looks like the kind of dream housing that mental health advocates wish would only multiply. Built with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, it is designed for independent living for the mentally ill.
It is not an institution; there are no bars on the doors or windows, no sign-out sheets, no group medication. It is designed to provide a backstop for people sufficiently grounded to live on their own, presumably overseen by people who understand the needs of the mentally ill.
Pecan Village is safe, clean and well tended. Well, except for the one apartment with the bashed-in brick front, thanks to one resident's jumping the curb with her car and ramming it some months back. But basically, it is a nice complex not too far from a branch of Methodist Hospital.
Clark thought it was going to be perfect. He'd lived in a similar unit in Tomball a few years back, but had to leave when problems -- among them, a flare-up of his Parkinson's -- sent him to a nursing home. He was able to regain his health and was released from the nursing home after several months. He couldn't get back into Tomball Pines. If they built ten more places like Tomball Pines, they would fill up immediately.
Clark was offered a chance to get into the Baytown complex. There was an MHMRA day program nearby; stores were handy. Life would be manageable and good.
Sam Hom, an MHMRA employee, oversees the property and, in fact, was the person who approved Clark's coming in. MHMRA filed the initial application with HUD for the complex and appointed the board to manage it. It is not an owner of the complex, but contracts with Pecan Village to provide management services, namely Hom.
Hom is not full time; he usually drops by twice a week. The apartment set aside for a full-time manager is vacant, something MHMRA hopes to get changed someday.
To compensate for a lack of face time, Hom writes authoritative memos.
When some residents were too loud at night, Hom issued new rules that had everyone inside their apartments no later than eight.
Some residents weren't cleaning up after themselves in the community room, and items started going missing. Hom wrote a memo. It had no effect. Hom says he had to protect the investment.
So he changed the locks. Residents can still use the laundry room and get to the vending machine, but they have to ask Hom or either of two residents entrusted with the keys to let them inside the main room with its TVs. The community room became a museum piece.
This irritated Clark. As did the regular exterminator visits to each unit. Clark says these visits were carried out with little warning and that Hom was too quick to come in before determining whether someone was home. Hom says he sent out a memo about upcoming exterminations.
One woman, who doesn't want her name used, says she was lying on her couch napping when she heard a knock. She jumped up, but Hom and the maintenance man were already in her apartment. "It was a little quick," Hom agrees. He says that hasn't happened again.
This woman also says she got in a dispute with a neighbor and that Hom didn't respond to her complaint right away. When he did, she says, "He made us sign some papers saying whoever talked to the other would be kicked out. Like we were kids." She also says that Hom threatened her that if she had any more gripes she would have to ask special permission of him to have her grandchildren come over for visits at night.
Clark complained that needed repairs were never getting done. The lock on his bathroom door went for months without being fixed. Hom says Clark agreed that it was a low priority, that he could get by with it as it was.
The crumpled brick facade didn't get fixed for six months. It was repaired the day after the Press came out and took photographs of the damage. Hom says that was just a coincidence, that it took a long time to work things out with the insurance company.
Hom also says other repairs were delayed because there's not a lot of money, that he tried to group them together to cut down costs, that he was waiting on a man from Houston who kept putting him off, and that he finally went with a local repairman.
To live in 8-11 housing, people like Clark must be able to prove two seemingly contradictory things. One is that yes, they are, well, nuts. The other is that they can live independently. They establish both with a letter from their psychiatrist.
Living independently is tricky for anyone on a limited income, but it's especially stressful for a group prone to mental and medical emergencies.
Some want complete independence and think Hom should only function as a normal apartment manager who takes care of maintenance problems. Others look to Hom for help in filling out governmental and medical forms and in settling disputes. For most it's a mixed bag -- they want help but not meddling.
Chance Hollis likes Hom and is one of the two residents entrusted with community room keys. "I think Sam is doing a bang-up job running this place," the young man says.
Clark, on the other hand, finds Hom's manner both stifling and inept.
He'd been in his apartment for several months when CenterPoint Energy told him they'd been billing the wrong apartment for his electricity use and that he owed $700 in back charges. He wants to know why Hom never noticed that the empty manager's apartment was being charged for Clark's electricity. He hadn't paid an electric bill himself for a while and didn't realize the $40 a month he was being charged was impossibly low.
He had an electrical fire in his apartment when the wires from the a/c and the heating unit were mixed. He says firefighters pulled the wires apart, but that they couldn't do the final repairs. That's never been done, he says.
Clark misses the support services he had at Tomball Pines, where a van would take residents shopping and to doctor's appointments. But there is no such arrangement at Pecan Village. Instead, residents with no cars pay those who have them $5 each way to take them where they need to go, he says.
Rose Childs, MHMRA deputy director, met with Hom and Clark in Clark's apartment recently. Voices were raised; Clark would ask Hom questions but was little inclined to listen for his explanations.
In fact, Clark was so mad, he announced that he was leaving. He'd had enough of subsidized housing, this in loco parentis, "which by the way is against the law."
Childs, a reassuring presence who has known Clark for years, wanted to know why he hadn't called her earlier. Well, he finally had.
With all the demand for housing for the mentally ill, Clark wanted to know, why has one two-bedroom apartment been vacant for more than a year? Hom said a two-bedroom is hard to fill. Childs said Baytown may be a less desirable location than Tomball.
Hom explained his reasons for an 8 p.m. curfew. Childs said if she were the manager, she "probably would have managed it a little differently. If that is a problem for the majority of the group, it can change."
"That would have to be a board decision," Hom corrected. Childs agreed.
Later, when discussing the limited access to the community room, Childs said, "If anyone wants a key, they can have a key."
"That would be a board decision," Hom said.
There had been a recent meeting of the MHMRA-appointed board of directors at the apartment complex. This was a major event, the first time the board had met with residents since the apartments opened three years ago. Clark missed it; he had to be hospitalized for adjustments to the implant he received to control his Parkinson's. He heard that Hom got three standing ovations.
So when the board met, what was said about opening up the community room? "The board didn't respond one way or the other," Hom said.
"Sam is MHMRA. They run it. The only time the board gets involved is when they call a meeting."
It's a neat sleight of hand that means no one is being held responsible for decisions made at the complex. Foster said the board usually meets about once a year (without the residents), that most business is handled over the phone, and that when he has to, he signs paperwork, which Hom prepares for him. Hom has declined to give the names of board members to residents; he says he needs to protect their privacy.
Asked about opening the community room, Foster said: "I don't know why it isn't opened more or why it has to be locked. I guess to keep expenses down."
Advocacy Inc. did investigate one resident's complaints and, as a result, has sent a letter to MHMRA.
But as Childs points out, several changes already have been made:
The off-your-porch-by-eight curfew has been rescinded.
Many of the needed repairs have been made.
The community room is still under negotiation.
Although the MHMRA day-care program in the area ended long ago, there's word that a new one operated by a competing agency may be opening up soon. This could provide some of the counseling and transportation support needed by residents.
David Clark didn't move out of Pecan Village after all. One of his prospective roommates couldn't get out of his present lease.
Still in place at Pecan Village, he has become a pariah, a man adrift.
"My neighbors won't even wave at me," he complains sadly. He says it's because they are afraid to talk to him, afraid that if Sam Hom thinks they're friends of his, they'll be tossed out of their apartments.
Clark had stopped paying his rent, rationalizing that he'd been mistreated. He's settling up now. His electricity was cut off more than once. He successfully argued that CenterPoint shouldn't be doing this to someone with a disability.
Despite all this, he's bought a car, saying he's tired of asking others for rides.
Some neighbors have said that they think Clark isn't stable and that they're staying away from him because he's so angry. Several say they support Sam Hom and the job he is doing. None of them wants trouble.
Most of the changes that still need to be made at the complex are no-brainers. Priority should be given to appointing a more involved board -- one that meets with residents more than once in three years.
The community room should be reopened. If someone misbehaves, then, just as in any other apartment complex, call the cops. A live-in custodian would probably help keep things kosher.
Sam Hom needs to cut down on the memo-writing.
The mentally ill residents of Pecan Village are asking that people trust them to live on their own. Our own government, by establishing such housing, says this is possible. These people's doctors say it is so. MHMRA endorses the concept when it sends over a manager for such a complex.
What's needed is a hefty dose of trust. Trust that the mentally ill can do the very thing that we pay lip service to -- the idea that they can establish a life on their own.
The irony, of course, is that in agitating for that right, David Clark may have lost the trust of everyone around him.
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