Mental Anguish

Rescuing the mentally ill has brought millions to the Mental Health Corporation of Denver--as well as complaints of coercion, mismanagement and neglect.

"I've heard people say in meetings that the agenda is to close the boarding homes," he says. "Well, that's not my agenda. I think they have a role. There will be some handful of clients for whom this is what they prefer, no matter what options we present. There's only so far we can go in convincing a client who doesn't want to move."

In fact, the corporation is still making considerable use of Valdez as a kind of holding tank for certain Goebel clients. The latest quarterly report by the state on the Goebel plan notes a persistent problem with "backfilling"--meaning clients are still being referred to Valdez and the other homes by various mental-health agencies despite the clear mandate to move them out. In most cases, the referrals are being made because of a lack of alternative housing.

A surprising number of the referrals have been made by MHCD itself. By Robertson's calculations, the corporation has made more than sixty referrals to Valdez since the plan was finalized, including seventeen placements in the three months following the closure of Highlands. Many of the subsequent referrals involve individuals who have been taken out of Valdez and then returned two or three times after abandoning or being evicted from the apartments MHCD found for them.

James Kuroki shows off the "big, spacious closets" in the room he shares with one other resident at Laradon, an eleven-bed group home for Goebel clients in Globeville. Opened in May, Laradon is a clean, well-lighted place: new oak furniture, sunny balconies, a pool table, laundry facilities, a community kitchen and several common areas stocked with televisions and VCRs. The equivalent of four and a half full-time MHCD employees supervises the operation; three of them rotate in 24-hour shifts and sleep on the premises.

"It sure is nice here," Kuroki says. "I'd recommend it to anyone who wanted a chance. But they can't let just anyone in here. They have to prove themselves."

Kuroki has spent most of the past two decades in the state hospital in Pueblo. Although he says he's 72 years old, he appears to be in his late forties. Two years ago MHCD moved him into his own apartment in Capitol Hill, but strangers kept taking advantage of him, and he wound up back at Valdez. He likes Laradon much better--"The food is better, the employees are better, we can afford it and they have programs," he says--but he believes his stay here will be only temporary.

"Eventually, I would like to move to my own apartment," Kuroki says. "I did it before. But bad things happened. I had a bad neighbor that came by. I moved out."

Laradon represents a growing trend in the care of the mentally ill: small, intensively staffed group homes. Some people with chronic mental illnesses fare well on their own, with only minimal supervision of medication; under the Goebel plan, six have even become homeowners. But for those who have difficulty "negotiating the community" by themselves, the ready-made community provided by places like Laradon may be a stopgap solution. MHCD has established four group facilities since the Goebel plan began, and officials acknowledge that there's a crying need for more.

"When we settled this case initially," says Kathleen Mullen, "the state's position was that the vast majority of these people could live independently, in their own apartments. I said, 'Not on your life. These folks have been institutionalized for so long that they are going to need at least a transition to a group setting before they can make the leap.' They said, 'No, no, that's not true'--and then, after they moved them from Highlands and found out it wouldn't work, there was a revision to the plan."

Kuroki says his case manager told him four things needed to happen before he could have his own apartment again. "First, I have to find an apartment," he explains. "Second, I have to find something to do to keep me out of trouble. Third, I need to know my way around Denver. Fourth, I need to know my safety plan."

Fifth, the City of Denver may need to do a few things, too. Out of the 250 units of housing the city is supposed to make available under the Goebel plan, to date only 27 have been delivered. The lack of affordable housing has resulted in a long waiting list of Goebel clients who want their own apartments and a similar logjam of people waiting for a bed to open up in the group homes.

Several factors have been blamed for the delay, including protracted negotiations over 100 subsidized housing vouchers and neighborhood opposition to group homes for the mentally ill. After months of haggling, the city is expected to finalize an agreement with the Denver Housing Authority for the vouchers before the end of the year, but the lack of group homes remains an ongoing problem.

"The city is having a difficult time identifying sites for the group homes because of zoning and residential issues," notes the state's Tom Barrett. "The fact is these homes are generally well-maintained, and once people are there, it works quite well; but the resistance usually comes before people move in."

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