OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

CLOSING THE HIGHLANDS BOARDING HOME PUT SOME OF DENVER'S MENTALLY ILL RESIDENTS ON THE ROAD TO A BETTER LIFE--AND LEFT OTHERS OUT IN THE COLD.LOST IN BEDLAM FOR MANY OF THE HIGHLANDS 100, DENVER'S PLAN TO RELOCATE THE MENTALLY ILL HAS BEEN A MOVE TO OBLIV

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Ron Guerin doesn't want to talk about the apartment. The apartment didn't work out. Best not to talk about it.

See, it was a basement apartment. On the north side of town. And it might have worked out, except for the voices on the telephone.

For more than seven years Guerin lived in the Highlands Personal Care Living Center, a privately operated boarding home for the chronically mentally ill in northwest Denver. But last January the city closed Highlands over a zoning dispute, and Guerin--who had spent 15 of his 64 years in the Colorado State Hospital in Pueblo--had to find another place to live.

People from the Denver Department of Social Services encouraged him to get his own apartment, "and that's what I wanted to do," Guerin says. "But I was only there two or three months. I started getting threatening phone calls. People said they were going to hurt me. So I called my case manager and said, `Come over. I want to leave.'"

Guerin now lives at the Vernon L. Valdez Personal Care Center on West Colfax Avenue, one of a handful of boarding homes left in the city. It's a sprawling, red-brick warren of the mentally ill--much like Highlands, although less spacious. At Highlands most people had their own rooms; at Valdez there are as many as four to a room and only four bathrooms for eighty residents. But Guerin likes Valdez just fine. He lived in the building before, as far back as 1975.

"I'm very comfortable here," he says. "I'm going to stay here."

At first glance, Valdez doesn't appear to be a terribly comfortable place for anyone to live, much less people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression or other mental illnesses. The kitchen is spotless, but the halls are gloomy, the furnishings well-worn, privacy at a premium.

Residents pace the grounds, smoking cigarettes, or sit on benches in a stark common room, fixated on the blue glow of a television set. A note posted in the main office advises staff that a certain Ms. X "is not to be allowed anywhere near" a Mr. Y. Like a halfway house or a nursing home, the place seems permeated with an indelible, musty odor of troubles past and troubles waiting to happen.

For years, though, places like Valdez and Highlands have been a refuge for the mentally ill and the "developmentally disabled" (people with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, etc.)--particularly those who have been shunned by their families or cast out of state facilities after years of institutionalization. The homes provided hot meals and a bed, at a price someone living on government disability checks could afford. According to some former staff and residents, the Highlands home also provided a rare sense of community.

"Nobody knows the love and the money that went into that place," says Kay Robertson, who worked at Highlands in its last months and now manages the Valdez home. "It was just--different. It was their world, and they were accepted just as they are. Nobody laughed at them. Nobody tried to change them."

Social workers and mental-health professionals tend to take a less rosy view of the homes; they see them as little more than warehouses, where the mentally ill are all too easily exploited, abused or left to stagnate. For the past two years, thanks to the settlement of a complex class-action lawsuit that dragged through the courts for thirteen years, the City of Denver has been waging a quiet war on the problem. Four of the homes--Valdez, Highlands, La Bonte and Pontiac--have been specifically targeted by the city under the Goebel plan, a blueprint for "mainstreaming" the mentally ill by moving them out of the massive homes and into smaller group homes or their own apartments.

"One of the problems with [the mentally ill] living in a board-and-care home is that many things are done for them--meals, shopping, transportation--rather than learning to take care of themselves," notes Jim Stockdill, project director for the Mental Health Corporation of Denver (MHCD), the nonprofit group that has contracted with the city and the state to implement the plan at an annual cost of $7 million. "Rather than negotiating the community, they just kind of sit there. Our goal is integration into the community."

The Goebel settlement doesn't give mental-health workers the authority to close down the homes or remove residents if they don't want to leave; but as it turned out, the zoning battle over Highlands last winter presented the first real test of the plan. Suddenly, for reasons the opposing factions are still arguing about, nearly a hundred boarding-home residents were in desperate need of food and shelter. MHCD and the Denver Department of Social Services sprang into action, whisking residents to temporary housing and vowing to move as many as possible into their own apartments. "I think we could find places for them that would not be worse than the place they're in," Sterling Drumwright, Denver's public-health administrator, assured a zoning appeals board.

One year later, the closing of Highlands is regarded in mental-health circles as a tremendous success--or, as the lingo of the profession would have it, the "relocation emergency" has resulted in mental-health "consumers" being "transitioned" to "the most appropriate setting." MHCD claims that nearly half of its Highlands clients, around forty people, are now living on their own.

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