Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Place of Their Own

By Kristina Simms

Making a left turn in my little gray 2005 Chevy Cobalt sedan that always contains fast food wrappers and coffee cups and miscellaneous paper, posters, and banners from various meetings, I arrive in the parking lot of the group home where my 49 year old daughter, Celia, lives. It is 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday in October. I am right on time.

The two storey brick building, formerly a church, was transformed into a group home for adults with mental illness by a group of NAMI volunteers in 1983. The 7.5 acre campus contains not only a residence, but a workshop and two greenhouses. The acronym NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am a member and a volunteer for this fine organization and am ever in their debt for the services provided to my daughter.

Celia is waiting at a picnic tables on the grassy area near the kitchen. Behind the two picnic tables, several large azalea bushes hug the side of the home. In the spring the azaleas are lush with pink blooms. In front of the home, a circular brick wall adorned with a statue of an angel can also be used as an outdoor sitting area, but the twelve residents prefer the porch and the picnic tables when they feel like getting a little fresh air, or smoking cigarettes as the case may be. The angel is a memorial to deceased former residents at the home and former clients of one of the work programs, some of whom were considerably younger than Celia when they passed away.

When she sees me, Celia, who is wearing a cotton knit top with a floral design and a pair of blue jeans that are ragged at the bottom, goes to the kitchen door and tells an aide that she’s leaving. Her jeans legs tend to get ragged because one way or another during the course of the day her britches slip down and she walks on the hems. It’s a matter not worth extended discussion because she does so well at so many other tasks.

Celia has wavy honey blonde hair with just a few strands of gray. Her smile is engaging and her demeanor usually cheerful. She will be fifty soon. She could be mistaken for someone ten or fifteen years younger.

She is glad to see me and I am glad to see her. We get together for an outing once or twice a week. Several times a year I plan parties for the residents and their friends. We decorate, do readings, play games, have drawings for prizes, and on a couple of occasions have laughed ourselves silly trying to dance under a limbo stick. Because some of the residents and most of the staff and parents (I am now 73) are in no shape for bending, our volunteer stick-holders graciously raise and lower the stick accordingly. The winners are determined by “style,” not agility. Some of the other parents, board members, and generous church groups also provide treats and entertainment for the residents.

My daughter, and the other eleven residents, have a warm and loving and safe home right now, but whether the board and the parents and the volunteers can keep it financially afloat is a matter of constant concern. A contract with the local mental health agency for housing six of the residents is a major source of income. Contributions from United Way also help with the budget. Fundraisers like plant sales and rummage sales and golf tournaments add to the till. Grants from Flint Energies and the E. J. Grassman Trust have been used for major improvements to the home, such as outdoor lighting, wiring, carpeting, a new roof, kitchen remodeling and plumbing repair. A few years ago, my brother, a lawyer, arranged for NAMI-Central Georgia to receive a donation large enough to enable pay-off on the mortgage. That was a real boon.

Even so, the provision of room, board, supervision, and transportation to appointments for a dozen adults on a 24/7 basis requires a constant outflow of cash and the board as well as the relatives of the residents stay concerned about whether the inflow of dollars will keep up with the outflow. The state of Georgia continues to cut funds and close hospitals and programs for the mentally ill. Aging parents (like myself) of adults with mental illness have no assurance that the state will provide a safe haven for our loved ones when we are gone. Many of the mentally ill in Georgia end up in jail. The catch-22 is that leaving money to an adult on Medicaid and SSI will simply cause their benefits to stop until the inherited funds are exhausted.

Celia gets to choose the restaurant where we will have lunch and she chooses a Chinese buffet restaurant about four miles from the group home. She fills up her plate with fried rice, moo goo gai pan, a shrimp and veggie dish, and an egg roll. The food and a soda keep her happily occupied for a while. Then she announces that she’s going for dessert. In a few minutes she comes back grinning, with two pieces of coconut dessert, one in each hand, one for me and one for her.

Feeling full, I decline the proffered dessert. When Celia declares herself finished with lunch, I pay, give her $10 spending money, and we go to a nearby “dollar” store. Taking her to small variety stores to shop works out well. There’s only one way in and one way out – the front door – and she can roam at will. She loves to shop. Mostly she likes to buy snacks to share with her friends at the home, greeting cards, stationery, seasonal stickers to adorn the many letters she writes, makeup and amusing trinkets. She usually remembers that she can’t buy treats like hard candy and taffy because that sort of stuff plays havoc with her bridgework.

We stop and do some more shopping and at a big chain drugstore. On the way home we stop by the post office so she can buy stamps for some letters and cards she brought along to mail. Celia loves to send mail to friends and relatives and she loves to get mail. From the car I can see her walking around inside the post office looking for the mail drop. I wonder if I need to go in, but she finds the right slot for her letters and returns to the car pleased because the stamps she bought have a colorful, artistic design. Celia is an artist herself and can paint and draw beautifully when she is in the mood. Her handwriting and spelling are excellent. At one time in the long ago past she was in a program for gifted students. She can also play guitar and piano, again when she feels in the mood.

On the way back to the group home, Celia entertains me by singing a Blondie song, “Dreaming.” Blondie is one of her favorites. Celia has a wonderful memory for song lyrics and is one of the few people I know who knows all the words to the national anthem. After she finishes her rendition of “Dreaming,” she and I merge our voices in a silly duet performance of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” She enjoys singing campfire songs too, like the oldie that begins with “I see the moon, the moon sees me.”

When we get back to the home, she wants me to come inside and take some photos of her. Celia likes to include photos of herself in the cards and letters she writes. She poses in various chairs and beside various pictures and pieces of furniture. I tell her that I will be back in a few days with fried chicken and other goodies for a Harvest Party at the home.

When I get back to my apartment I upload the photos from my digital camera and order prints that will arrive by mail at her address in about a week. She loves to get mail.

This was a pleasant trip. Not all our trips have been so pleasant. In the past, some have involved late night drives to distant hospitals in bad weather and interviews with rude bureaucrats and psychiatrists who either clung to outdated theories or who just didn’t seem to give a darn about psychotic patients and parents who were anguished to the point of probably appearing psychotic themselves. Things are better now, for Celia, and for me. She is in a good home, has a good doctor, and a good social worker, and I only hope that the rug will not be pulled out from under us by more drastic changes in state policy or funding. My fingers stay crossed. My heart skips a beat when I hear of another group home or day treatment program being shut down for lack of funds. I fear for her future.

The subject of housing for the mentally ill is naturally of intense interest to me. Later that same week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in downtown Macon, lunching and conversing with Gary, a recent graduate of my alma mater, Mercer University, who works with Macon agencies that reach out to the homeless and also provide services for those with HIV/Aids.
Gary and I had an appointment to meet at one p.m.at a popular downtown sandwich shop where getting a parking place is sometimes problematic. Knowing that, I arrived early and still had to park about a block away. Carrying my purse and a plastic bag full of instant noodle dinners and walking with a cane – the homeless are often seen moving along with a slow or limping gait with their possessions in a bag, a backpack, or a cart. – it occurred to me that I might be mistaken for a bag lady myself had it not been for the fact that I visited the beauty shop two days before and was wearing relatively new clothing.

I gratefully sat down at one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables, where an awning protected me from the slight fall drizzle and ordered a cup of coffee and oatmeal cookies. Then I got out my notebook and pen and began to jot down some questions to ask Gary when he arrived. As a mental health advocate, I wanted to know more about how people became homeless and how they survived living on the streets of America’s cities.

A sudden gust of wind sent leaves flying down the sidewalk and the drizzle turns into genuine rain. A pleasant woman and her two teenage daughter rushed to my aid, grabbing my coffee mug, cookie plate, and bag and helping me get reseated inside the restaurant. Over the past three or four months I have noticed that more people are saying to me “can I help you with that?” Aside from the fact that many Georgians are just basically polite people, this increase in offers to help must have something to do with the fact that I am looking older and walking older these days.
I know I am walking older because my knees gave out at the huge Georgia National Fair and I rented a scooter for the first time in my life. Talk about an adventure! I wasn’t the only one scooting. Other fair visitors were actually scooting out of my way in all directions, almost dropping their corn-on-the cob and BBQ turkey legs when they saw me approaching. The highlight of my scooter tour was when I scooted into a cul-de-sac in the goat barn and found myself surrounded by bleating goats and unable to steer my little vehicle either backwards or forwards. A friendly goat farmer came to my rescue and opened a gate so I could get out. It was a new experience in relying on the kindness of strangers.

Settled at my new indoor table, I nibbled my cookies and kept an eye out for Gary, whom I was supposed to meet in front of the restaurant. The restaurant had large plate glass windows so there was no problem seeing the sidewalk tables from where I sat. The only trouble was that I didn’t know what Gary looked like, and he didn’t know me by sight either. We had spoken on the phone and emailed back and forth but this was our first face-to- face meeting.

Presently an older man in a rumpled pinstripe suit claimed the sidewalk seat that I had abandoned. It was still raining, but not so heavily, and the wind had calmed. The newcomer, who appeared to be in his sixties, waved away the server who came to inquire about his order, and lit up a great big stogie. He too was carrying a bag, but his was a red canvas tote bearing a corporate logo, the kind that might have been given out at a convention somewhere.

My server, a cheerful young lady who might have been a student at one of the local colleges, refilled my coffee and asked in a quiet voice, “Is that the guy you’re waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Do me a little favor, please? Poke your head out the door and ask him if his name is Gary.”

The pinstriped man had now been joined by a younger man, badly in need of a shave and haircut, who wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The younger man lit a cigarette and the two, who apparently knew each other, puffed and chatted.

The server shook her head as she walked back by my table.

“He says his name is Joe.”

“Good,” I said, a bit nervously, making her laugh. Somehow the cigar-smoking Joe didn’t have quite the demeanor of a social service worker. Something about his appearance and that of his pal made me feel uneasy.

About that time the real Gary walked in, a slender young man with brown hair and the casual neat attire of a recent graduate. When I saw him looking around, I waved at him and he joined me and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.

We began talking about the homeless in Macon, how they walked the downtown streets with bags or backpacks, sometimes wearing or carrying extra clothing, and it suddenly occurred to me that the two men who were seeking shelter under the awning might fit into that category.

“Oh yeah,” Gary said. “The older guy often gets lunch at one of the church programs. The weekends are harder for the homeless because some of the programs are closed. People have to take some time off, you know.”

The rain had stopped, and the two homeless men moved on. A portly gray-haired man wearing faded overalls and carrying a sack walked by. His gait was slow and the blank expression on his face indicated no sense of purpose or direction. He was just walking.

“And him?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s one of our veterans,” Gary said.

In less than ten minutes I had seen three homeless men. It made me particularly sad to see one of our war veterans plodding down the sidewalk with no home to call his own. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 23 percent of our country’s homeless people are veterans (compared to 13 percent of the general population).

I asked Gary if most of Bibb County’s 300+ vagrants were mentally ill. Many of them were, he said. (According to SAMHSA, the figure is 39 %, but since this figure is obtained by asking homeless people if they have mental problems, the actual number is probably much higher.) Others became homeless because of alcoholism, addiction, financial problems, or being abandoned or kicked out by family because they were gay or had AIDS/HIV. Some were homeless “by choice” because they could not or would not adapt to the rules of society or shelters. Inability to adapt, in itself, suggested some sort of mental disorder to me.

It would be easy for a “normal” person to dismiss the homeless as victims of their own sorriness and unwillingness to work, when the fact is that many receive disability checks but cannot find affordable housing and others work part time but can’t generate enough income to pay rent in today’s market. Chronic illness is common among the homeless, as are co-ocurring conditions. Most of the homeless are men, but increasingly women and children and even whole families are becoming homeless.

Homelessness is largely an urban problem. Gary told me about the thousands who were arrested in Atlanta during preparations for the 1996 Olympics. Atlanta cleared the streets of the poor by using a combination of new and existing ordinances to criminalize the homeless and clear downtown streets of the unsightly poor. Some were given tickets to other cities, such as Macon , a gesture not appreciated by city officials and overworked social agencies.

As I finished my cookies and coffee and Gary finished his grilled cheese, we talked about the stigma of being homeless. He told me how he and some college volunteers had dressed and lived like homeless men for 48 hours. Upon seeing them, mothers would guide their children to the far side of the sidewalk.

“I would have shunned you too,” I said. “Women are afraid of strange men.”

Homelessness + illness + unkempt appearance + stigma = a combination that does not lend itself to warm feelings from the general public. I thought of the uneasiness I experienced during the brief time I thought cigar-chomping Joe might be the man I had come to interview.

After lunch Gary drove me around and showed me some of the bridges across the Ocmulgee that served as shelters for the homeless. There are also some homeless encampments but these temporary camping spots tend to move around because of objections from the police and the railroads. We parked for a moment by the underside of a bridge so I could get a photo from that angle. I saw seven or eight feral cats but no homeless humans. We had no sooner approached the bridge area than I heard the whoop of a police car. Two patrolmen pulled up about half a block away, so we got back in Gary’s car and left.

I thanked Gary for the interview and the drive and promised to help him collect thermos mugs to be used as gifts for the homeless at a charity Christmas party.

Three days later, about 10:45 a.m. Celia is in the kitchen at the group home, chatting with one of the aides. I enter the back door bearing packages of cookies and a bowl of coleslaw. I ask Celia to go to the car with me and help carry in some bags of prizes for the drawing we will have at our Harvest Party lunch. The bags contain a few jokey items but mainly usable stuff like shampoo, stationery, hand cream, and body wash. Celia is wearing an Air America blue T-shirt and jeans. She is squeaky clean including still-damp hair. I invite her to ride with me to pick up the fried chicken I have ordered from a large grocery a couple of miles away.

Before leaving I take a peek at the decorations in the rec room. The tables are decorated with fall-themed plastic table cloths, little pumpkins and colorful imitation fall leaves. The room looks bright and cheerful. The residents are already beginning to gather in anticipation of the special “party” lunch that is planned. Some even choose a seat at one of the tables, even though we won’t eat for half an hour.

At the grocery Celia helps me select some fruit and vegetable trays. Then we stop by the deli and pick up the 48 pieces of chicken I have ordered. It’s a BIG box and it smells wonderful.
Checkout takes a while but Celia is patient. We are in the 15 item or less line and the woman ahead of us plunks at least 30 items on the belt and then must discuss the price of 25 of them with the cashier. Coupons too.

Back at the home, the residents and staff and several guests gather together in the rec room. One of the residents reads a seasonal blessing which I found on the internet and printed off for him. He has a good reading voice and especially likes to do the blessing. Then we sing a few campfire type songs, including two of Celia’s favorites, “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” and “I see the Moon.” Someone makes a joke about our group being ready to eat like bears.

We take turns saying what we are thankful for. Several of the residents say they are thankful to live in a nice home. Last year Celia said she was thankful for good places to shop. This year she was thankful for her mother taking her places. Sure sounds like shopping to me!

We don’t get around to singing “Workin’ on the Railroad” or “This Land is Your Land,” because voices from the kitchen tell is it’s time to get in line for the special lunch! No urging is necessary. Plates are piled high. Special sugar-free goodies for the four diabetics at the home have been provided by one of our loyal volunteers, who also helps me ham it up at the prize drawing. After a ticket number is called the winner must close his eyes and select an unseen item from the prize bag. If the first item turns out to be unwanted, one more “grab” is allowed.
When all prizes have been drawn -- miraculously, everyone wins something -- the next stage of the game is prize-trading. Don’t like your prize? Then hold it up and see if someone wants to trade. Doesn’t anybody want this address book? The party ends with everyone pitching in to clean up, and lots of goodbye hugs.

On the way home I think about the homeless folks under the bridges in Macon, the fact that the onset of cold weather is near, and my thankfulness that Celia is not among those whose lives have spiraled downward into the caste of America’s untouchables. I also think that some of those aimless walkers of the streets if better groomed and clad and properly medicated might be able to fit in at a place like Celia’s group home where a predictable schedule and friendly supervision provide a calm and safe environment. But Georgia has nowhere near enough licensed homes.

Worries cloud my mind. Will her group home be able to keep its housing contract with the local mental health agency? Will the funds be available? Will the state of Georgia continue to cut essential mental health programs as the jails and the streets become the new “asylums.” Will the group home where Celia and her friends live be in existence ten years from now? Five? Two?
Yes, I worry. Mental health workers worry. The churches worry. The charitable agencies worry. But does the Georgia General Assembly? I think not.

(Copyright 2010 by Kristina Simms. Use prohibited without written permission of author.)

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