Longform

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

part 2 of 2
"This one's mine. This one's mine. This one's mine, too."
Richard Deem is hunched over a barrel in a back room at the Wishing Well Drop-In Center on Speer Boulevard, a kind of clubhouse for the mentally ill, where the salvaged belongings of former Highlands residents are stored. He soon fills three boxes with books and religious pamphlets, everything from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces to Holy War, the inside story of the PTL scandal, and numerous textbooks and dictionaries--books he hasn't seen since he left Highlands a year ago, bound for Ridge Home.

Near the bottom of the barrel are stacks of yellowed apartment-rental guides for the Denver area. Deem starts to take them, then puts them back. "I don't need those anymore," he says.

It took Deem a year to reclaim his books, because he didn't have a ride to the drop-in center. It took him nine years to leave Highlands, even though he badly wanted to.

"I didn't like it there," he says. "It had a criminal element. They'd bum cigarettes, then they'd bum money. I was threatened a couple of times. I didn't like that."

Fifty-six years old, Deem is one of the success stories of the Highlands move. In fact, he was practically the poster boy for the event: Last January a Denver Post photo showed him sitting on his bed, his bags packed and ready to go. What the photo didn't show was that Deem had been packed up for a long time.

"I wanted to move out, but I didn't know where to go," he says. "I told Harold Harmer I was going to get a private apartment. He told me I wouldn't be able to come back. I accepted that. But I didn't know where to go to find an apartment."

Deem has been mentally ill for 34 years. He is matter-of-fact about the nervous breakdown he suffered as a young man while studying for the seminary in South Carolina, the subsequent diagnosis (manic depression and schizophrenia), the somewhat confusing journey afterward to shelters, then Highlands, Ridge Home--and now his own ground-floor apartment in Capitol Hill.

With the assistance of his mental-health case-management team, Deem has made a home for himself. His furniture consists of other people's castoffs, including a gray sofa set and card table he rescued from the trash. Bookcases anchor every wall of his living room. A row of business cards from his mental-health contacts is posted by the phone, should he ever need to call. Deem says he has no complaints.

He cooks his own meals, mostly TV dinners. His caseworker takes him shopping on Fridays and he attends group therapy on Wednesdays. Once in a while he strolls over to the Sun Cafe on Colfax for a meal or a glass of iced tea. One friend from Highlands lives upstairs in the same apartment house; another lives in the La Bonte boarding home a few blocks away.

For the most part, though, Deem stays in his apartment, locked away with his television, his radio and his books. Although the Goebel service plan states that "consumers with severe and persistent mental illness can obtain competitive jobs rapidly" and that work "is considered a form of mental-health treatment," he has no job, and the mental-health people aren't exactly pressuring him to find one. "I have a severe mental illness," he says. "I can't have a job."

Mainstreaming, in Deem's case, consists mostly of being left alone. "I watch television and listen to the radio," he says. "I don't get lonely. I like my privacy."

In many ways, Deem is among the most fortunate of all the Highlands refugees. His needs are few and they are easily met, because the Goebel funding has allowed the Mental Health Corporation to boost staffing ratios considerably. Previously, a dozen staff members served up to 450 clients, but the new community treatment teams assign 15 staff and a psychiatrist to 270 clients, and the new high-intensity treatment teams allot 12 staffers to 80 people. (The teams provide various services, including the vital supervision of medication; according to one study, three-fourths of outpatients with schizophrenia stop taking their antipsychotic drugs within two years of leaving a hospital or program.)

Unfortunately, the high-intensity teams are available to only a fraction of MHCD's clients. In fact, the entire Goebel settlement package is directed only at those persons receiving treatment for mental illness who lived in central and northwest Denver between 1981 and 1994--roughly half of the people the corporation has contracted to serve.

"We do have a concern that we're setting up two different systems of care here," says MHCD's Stockdill. "Half our clients are getting the Goebel services, and half aren't."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast