Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another definition for 'crazy'

AUSTIN — Cherry is her name.

And once upon a time, well . . .

"I went crazy — really crazy."

She says it with a smile. She is tending the kitchen at Southpointe, a residence for people with various disabilities.

Once upon a time, she was a hard-working contributor to society. Then a chemical imbalance beset her brain. Her working rounds became the sidewalks of Austin.

Like so many others.

Fortunately, she had family that helped her. And she had some savings to go with Social Security disability. Because of that, she has an apartment here.

An indicator of Cherry's stabilized mental health is that she knows how lucky she is.

Others like her are sleeping on grates, or bunking in unlicensed boardinghouses. Many are in the two-fisted grip of a mental illness and alcoholism or illegal drug abuse. Every one of them could have her placid demeanor and optimism.

"This is really nice here," she says. "They need more of these." Yes, ma'am.

What we do, or don't do, for severely mentally ill individuals is a scandal. One of the rarely discussed scandals is the lack of housing assistance.

If you're born with a mental disability or injured severely, society is going to take care of you. The alternative? Um, freezing to death in a wheelchair on the street corner?

People with mental illness can be every bit as disabled — hiding in the shadows, or from them; speaking to specters.

One big difference, though: A mentally retarded person gets 100 percent publicly funded housing, support and training. A mentally ill person gets nothing beyond that $674 monthly Social Security check.

Indicative of this is the fact that Southpointe is an ICF-MR — an intermediate care facility for the mentally retarded. But seeing a need, the Mary Lee Foundation, which operates it, freed up a few units for the mentally ill as well. One problem: It comes without the public assistance available for other disabilities.

Rare is the publicly funded program like New York City's Project Renewal. The city and state jointly invest in housing and care for the mentally ill. Many stabilize, find jobs, live life.

Across the country: just the opposite. The mentally ill wander the streets. They end up behind bars and in mental hospitals — in and out and in again, over and over. Taxpayers' money down the drain.

Policy makers can't fathom paying for ongoing support and housing yet will spend gobs to jail and hospitalize them.

Two generations ago, rightful outrage was summoned about the warehousing of the mentally ill. People who were locked up in "snake pits" saw the light of day.

One problem, says Marilyn Hartman, whose son has a severe mental illness: Policy shifted "to the other extreme: no provisions for anybody." Confronting this matter is about more than medication, she says. Central to the issue is "long-term, permanent housing" with services like those at Southpointe.

Hartman's son, a Yale graduate, was hospitalized 13 times over three years after being diagnosed. In the six years he's been living at Southpointe, he hasn't needed hospitalization.

Actively involved in the Austin affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, she has urged lawmakers to see the savings inherent in helping the mentally ill keep out of jail and the mental hospital.

Southpointe has been a salvation for her son, Hartman says. It's the whole package of support for the mentally ill, including therapy that gets some back into the workforce. But it's not free or cheap.

When it comes to housing the mentally ill, most policymakers don't get it. They don't see that permanent housing, with support, for the mentally ill is cost-effective. It helps people recover. It reduces demands on jails and mental hospitals.

You've heard the old definition of insanity — doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. That's what we do when mentally ill people go from jail, to the mental hospital, and back to the street. Yeah, that's crazy.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

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