part 1 of 2
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.

And what about the rest of the Highlands 100? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Project director Stockdill says that a few of MHCD's clients are living with family members, in nursing homes or in treatment facilities such as Fort Logan; almost a third of them have been placed "temporarily" in boarding homes or rooming houses. "It may take a couple of years, but the goal is still that they'll be able to live on their own," he says. "I do not believe that any of them are still in large boarding homes like Valdez or La Bonte."

But as of last week, there were thirteen former Highlands residents at Valdez--all but one of them MHCD clients--and seven others at La Bonte. (After checking with his staff, Stockdill acknowledged that the number was greater than he expected.) For some, the closing of Highlands has meant not increased independence but the trauma that comes from being uprooted from familiar surroundings and friends, only to be deposited in more expensive, more congested quarters.

For others, like Ron Guerin, the past year has been even more difficult. Several former Highlands people tell horror stories of being "transitioned" from place to place--hospital, group home, motel, apartment--with no end in sight. A few have been evicted from apartments or left voluntarily after deciding they could not cope with the street crime, hostile neighbors, the expense or the added responsibilities and pressures of living on their own. At least one is reportedly living on the streets.

Advocates for the mentally ill concede that apartment life isn't for everyone, but they argue that most of the Highlands people can probably make it given enough time, services and funding. "Most of the mentally ill are low-maintenance people," says Virginia Bedford of the Colorado Department of Social Services. "If you just give them their medication and they have a structured environment so they know they have a home, they do really well."

"If your expectations of them are low, their own expectations are going to be low," adds Stockdill. "We were told by many people that none of these folks were ready for independent living. Well, 23 of them went directly to independent living, and I think only one of those has failed."

Yet the experiences of those who haven't made it on their own raise troubling questions about the closing of Highlands and its aftermath, as well as the degree of "intensive case management" required to make the Goebel plan work. In the painful transition from boarding-house dependency to the brave new world of mainstreaming, dozens of the consumers of mental-health services have gotten lost in the shuffle. In the case of Ron Guerin, the whole affair has made him more cautious than ever about the world outside his room, a place of uncertainty and threatening voices on the telephone.

"I was in no hurry to get that apartment," Guerin says now. "I had a nice place, but I didn't know I was going to get sick. You never know. Someone could say something mysterious to you that you don't understand, and then it starts all over."

"A couple pounds of hamburger. A big batch of cereal on sale. One-dollar burritos in the frozen area. Pork steaks. A sack of potatoes. Spaghetti sauce. Spaghetti. Lunch meat. Lunch bread. Peanut butter and jelly."
Daryl Pfeifer knows his shopping list by heart. When he was living on his own, he says, shopping was not the problem. Capitol Hill was.

Like many other MHCD clients, Pfeifer began to experience symptoms of mental illness in his late teens. Now 42, he has bounced around the system for the past 23 years, including 5 at Highlands. In the past year he's moved five times, starting with a two-week stay at Transitions, the crisis center operated by MHCD on an upper floor of the Valdez home.

Denver Social Services helped him find an apartment in Capitol Hill. Pfeifer was looking forward to having his own place, but rent and utilities and other expenses left him only twenty dollars a week for groceries. "I was losing more and more weight," he says, "but I've discovered the fact that I am basically a skinny person."

Money wasn't his only worry, though. "It was so treacherous over there," he says. "It wasn't a safe neighborhood--a lot of, uh, action going on. Too much drug traffic, too much violence."

After three months, a fire in his apartment house left his digs smoke-damaged, and Pfeifer had to move out. He couldn't find any other place he could afford that felt safe, he says, and so he bounced from one boarding home that was "full of rules and being superior" to the next ("a total dump"). For the past three months he's been at Valdez, but that, too, he considers temporary.

"There are too many people with bad spines around here," he says. "I can't rest correctly. And my roommates--it's kind of upsetting, because they're in a space and a reality that's far away from mine. See, I have a daughter. I have a grandson. These are things I'm trying to construct in my mind, to make it a happy place."

In the past, Pfeifer says, he has worked as a custodian. "I know I am a little mentally ill, but I can take care of myself, you know," he says. "Right now things are going through my mind like, `Well, you can't get an apartment and just walk out. You got to get over the illness.' Wishing Well [an outreach program run by MHCD] wants me to go down there and join their program, and I'm thinking about doing that."

At the moment, though, Daryl Pfeifer is feeling poorly. He feels like he has the flu, and maybe something else, too, something he's fighting off. It's like his whole system is "dying off," he says, and he has to do something about it before he can do anything else.

"I'd like to get settled down somewhere," he says. "I've done it before, lived for a year in one place. It makes a difference, you know. It makes a real difference."

"The reason they closed us down is money," says Harold Harmer. "It's all about millions of dollars flowing to the Mental Health Corporation. If Social Services and the mental-health people can get away with saying they did this for therapeutic reasons, I'll eat my hat."
Harmer, the combative owner of the Highlands Living Center, is the last in a long line of entrepreneurs who tried to make a living off the 75-year-old complex, which saw duty as a tuberculosis hospital and a nursing home long before it became a dumping ground for the mentally ill. Harmer says he never planned on running the place himself, but once he did, he wasn't about to give it up without a fight. In some ways, he's still fighting.

Harmer, who owns several rental properties in Denver, purchased Highlands for investment purposes in the early 1970s and leased it to a family that operated it for the next sixteen years. In the mid-1980s he sold it to other investors and retired to Florida. In 1988, though, a friend sent him a Denver Post article detailing how the property and its inhabitants had fallen on hard times; bankruptcy was imminent.

In fact, the situation was worse than the article indicated. Highlands had become a sinkhole of abuse and neglect: people sleeping on bare springs; cooks slipping food out the back door while the residents lived on hot dogs; not one working toilet in the entire building. Through foreclosure, Harmer became the reluctant operator of the home; he claims to have sunk more than $600,000 into repairs over the next six years. He also "hounded" Social Services, he says, until it provided on-site psychiatric and home-aide services for what was rapidly becoming one of the largest boarding homes in the state.

"When I walked in there, these people had no services," Harmer says. "We didn't see a social worker for more than three years. We started raising hell about it, and then they started seeing their clients again."

Court records and other sources present an unsettling picture of Harmer's squabbles with the city over Highlands. Despite his renovation efforts, the home was frequently in violation of various zoning ordinances. There were stories of Harmer serving beer to residents at a holiday party; of Harmer raising a pig on the premises and shooting and butchering it for a Labor Day barbecue; of Harmer "commingling funds" by putting his own money into residents' accounts to make up for money plundered by the previous owners--stories largely undisputed by Harmer, who says he was trying to win back the trust of people who'd been through a terrible ordeal.

Former staffers insist Harmer tolerated no abuse at Highlands and would fire employees for "doing business" with residents--by, say, selling cigarettes or loaning money. Harmer--whose sister, C.L. Harmer, works in public relations for Denver Health and Hospitals--contends that he was harassed by the city for political reasons. But Harmer's unorthodox style, which reportedly included occasionally bellowing at hard-to-manage residents and fining them $50 if they were caught drinking on the premises, hardly endeared him to the mental-health community.

"As long I've been working on mental-health issues in this city, Highlands has been an area of concern," says Scott Utash, a coordinator for the Legal Center for People With Disabilities and Older People. "The times I've been in there, there's been human feces on the floor and a lot of cockroaches. But the unofficial read on the place was always, `If we close it down, where will these people go?'"

"We felt it provided substandard care, but it was better than living under a bridge," says Kitty Pring, director of adult services for Denver Social Services. As Pring tells it, it was her department, not Harmer, that pressed to put mental-health professionals on the premises. "We bent over backwards to do what we could for the residents."

In 1990, under pressure from city officials, Harmer agreed to step down as the licensed administrator of Highlands in favor of his bookkeeper, Judy Lautenschlager, who later became his wife. But as the numbers at Highlands continued to grow, the home came under increasing attack from neighborhood groups. The surrounding area was undergoing a mild burst of gentrification, attracting young families, coffeehouses and funky boutiques. As the property values rose, so did the complaints about Highlands people panhandling or sitting in their bathrobes on neighbors' porches.

"It's not the wandering I find offensive," one neighbor explained at a zoning hearing. "It's the personal contact and the panhandling... not to mention the direct effect of mentally disabled persons who may or may not be in direct contact with young children."

Most Highlands residents lived on a monthly disability check of around $450, of which $405 went to room and board; many were also "dual diagnosis," under treatment not only for mental illness but also for alcoholism or drug abuse. Harmer concedes that a few residents did cause problems with neighbors, but he claims that many of the complaints were exaggerated.

"I can't deny that there were a few people who panhandled," he says. "When you only got forty or fifty dollars a month, you do what you have to do, and these guys can't work. But I got rid of a lot of people. We had rules, and you had to follow them."

In the spring of 1994, Denver's zoning department denied Harmer's application for renewal of his permit, on the grounds that Highland's 120 residents was ten more than the permit allowed and that the home's "nonconforming use" was injuring surrounding properties. Harmer, though, insists that the zoning dispute and neighbors' complaints were a mere smokescreen--that city officials were determined to see Highlands phased out of existence under the Goebel plan.

The Goebel case, named after Ruth Goebel, a mentally ill woman who died in Denver's streets in 1983, had been settled only months earlier after dragging through the state's courts for more than a decade. Under the terms of the settlement, the state committed to provide an additional $7 million in baseline funding over the next three years to develop expanded services for 1,600 indigent mentally ill people in central and northwest Denver; the city's obligations included developing an additional 250 units of subsidized housing. A key component of the plan called for the Mental Health Corporation of Denver to develop an individual "plan of care" for its clients in the Highlands, Valdez, La Bonte and Pontiac boarding homes and to relocate all those who wanted to move to other housing by mid-1996.

Harmer says he had a contract on an apartment building next to Highlands and was planning to move the most self-sufficient of his residents there--a scheme that didn't fit with the Goebel objective of placing them in smaller group homes or dispersed housing around the city, where they would be "serviced" by new "high-intensity treatment teams" and citywide, 24-hour "mobile crisis response teams."

"They closed us down before we could do it," he says now. "Social Services knew it was coming. They knew it would work perfectly, and they didn't want it to happen."

City officials have consistently denied any link between the Goebel plan and Harmer's zoning problems. "The zoning decision came as an incredible shock to me," says Pring. "If there was any collusion between Mental Health and zoning, I knew nothing about it."

Yet the transcript of Harmer's zoning appeals hearing before the Denver Board of Adjustment in the fall of 1994 reveals a remarkably hostile board concerned with an array of issues beyond the zoning questions at hand; the board apparently had been well-briefed beforehand on Harmer's prior conduct, including the infamous pig-shooting incident. City officials quizzed Harmer about his divorce from his first wife and casually testified that they'd heard "rumors" that Highlands might be accepting juvenile offenders from Adams County (a charge he strongly denies); they also suggested that MHCD would soon have to remove its support staff from the premises in order to provide services to other clients under the Goebel plan. And they produced a 1993 real estate listing asking $2.2 million for the property and boasting of "excellent, durable cash flows" and net income of $250,000 a year. (Harmer says he made $125,000 off Highlands in 1994 and considerably less in earlier years.)

Harmer fought back in various ways. He filed defamation suits, since dropped, against two of his most outspoken critics in the neighborhood association. He pleaded with the zoning department for a stay that would allow him to bring the Highlands population down to an acceptable number. He brought a hundred people on buses to the appeals hearing, including dozens of residents prepared to say they didn't want to move. None of it did any good.

"We walked in, and it was a done deal," he says. "It didn't matter how many people testified in support of Highlands."

"It was a massacre," says Kay Robertson, who worked as Judy Lautenschlager's assistant in operating the home. "They were after Harold. I was so shocked. We had to call the buses back early and get our people out of there because they were getting so upset."

Although Harmer lost the permit battle, the Board of Adjustment granted a six-month stay of its ruling to allow MHCD time to find housing for its clients. But last January, four months before the deadline, Harmer was served with a cease-and-desist order and the home was shut down for good. Kitty Pring says that Harmer triggered the crisis by laying off his night staff and closing his kitchen late in December; Harmer blames the Denver Department of Social Services for abruptly removing thirty residents and informing Harmer he would no longer receive rent for the rest, making it impossible for him to operate.

The mass exodus that followed was a media sensation. Tearful residents were bundled into vans or the blue buses used by the sheriff's department to transport prisoners. Their belongings were stuffed into trash bags. Thirty-two residents were driven off to temporary shelter at Ridge Home, a facility for the mentally retarded, another seventeen to a hotel by Stapleton. One refugee placed in an East Colfax motel was promptly beaten and robbed.

Although advocates for the mentally ill generally supported the move, "it really was external of the people living there," notes Scott Utash. "Many people did not want to leave, and they had very little say, as usual. It was pretty dehumanizing."

When it was over, Harmer was left with four truck-sized dumpsters filled with clothes and other possessions his former tenants had left behind. "Some of them left without any shoes," he says. "It was caregivers that did this to these people. That really burns me up."

Since the closure, he adds, he's fielded calls from relatives of former residents, concerned that the move might mean added expense or other responsibilities they weren't prepared to take on. He talks of one resident who was moved to a "crackhouse" in Capitol Hill, of underpaid social workers ("21-year-old gals") who are expected to monitor clients placed in apartment houses Harold Harmer would be afraid to enter. Ask him what he thinks about the Goebel plan's prospects for success and he turns positively caustic.

"They're coming back from these apartments like flies," he claims. "One of them will move into an apartment, and he's as lonely as can be--because he acts a little strange, he looks strange, and people shun him. So the worst guy on the block will befriend him, and then that guy and five of his friends will be living there. And they'll be stealing his money and eating his food and probably taking his drugs. That's a concept that really works, isn't it?"

Harmer is no longer in the boarding-home business. He filed a lawsuit against the city over the closure of Highlands, but the suit has been put on hold while he develops the cavernous building into loft condominiums. He may drop the suit, he suggests, if the city doesn't mess with his condos.

"I have to see how the city is going to treat me," he says. "I have no faith in city government at this point."

end of part 1


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >