Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why should housing for people with mental illnesses be substandard thanks to nightmarish mental health agency landlord?

I am sick of this drama with my apartment building. I have written about this before. The building is owned by a community mental health agency that is the only agency that is in my county which provides housing specifically for people with psychiatric illnesses. I have lived here for five years. I pay $500 a month for this one-bedroom apartment, which is a reasonable price although the neighborhood is filled with crime and is completely crappy at this point. But, it's not more than 20 minutes from my job, 50 minutes from my university, and close enough to my family. It's home to me. I have gotten used to living in this building.

About a year ago, they started doing construction on the building. The owner, which is that mental health agency, never told any of the tenants, at that time what the construction was for. It was curious because for three years the majority of the apartments in the building had been left completely vacant. This happened after the "jail diversion" program was removed from our building which had brought people from jail, who had mental illnesses, to live here temporarily and never worked out since the majority of these people were on drugs, were prostituting, and were bringing home their druggie friends, rather than getting jobs or doing anything at all productive with their lives. Therefore, they were all eventually evicted. When they lived here, the police were a regular presence because of all the crime that was going on. It was not uncommon to see those familiar flashing lights outside my living room window. But I lived with my boyfriend then, a big guy who I felt protected me somewhat. I wasn't that scared to live here.

While they were doing construction, and the jail diversion folks were gone, there were three apartments occupied by other women, one by me, and one by a very harmless, nice man. I didn't mind living here then. Eventually, the situation turned into a nightmare when, this past spring, we were all abruptly told that we had to move out, or if I was going to stay I would have to move into another apartment - in the same building, one that was renovated. I had a basic breakdown at that time. I didn't want to move at all. I wanted to stay where I lived. I didn't have any desire to pack up all my belongings to move into another apartment in the same building. I didn't want to stay here if there was going to be a bad situation when the new people moved in, but all I knew about those people was that they would be veterans.

The agency that owns the building contracted out with the Veterans' Administration to rent the other apartments in the building to vets, we were told. At first, I was also told that I would no longer have a yearly lease, but after some complaining and help from someone who advocated for me at the agency, I got a yearly lease to move into the renovated apartment. I went through the tremendous hassle of moving, and eventually unpacked, and got settled.

During all this time, all this past year, the agency that owns the building, a mental health agency, mind you, never bothered to tell the tenants what was really going on. The woman who lives below me is agoraphobic and rarely leaves her home. She is 63 years old but acts like she is 103 and barely cares for herself. She needs to be in an ALF, but the agency pays no attention to this, so I visit her on a regular basis to check on her. This woman and I, for the past five months, have been the only people living in this building. She has lived here for twelve years, and she refused to leave her apartment, so they let her stay in it.

The renovations were completed. Still, no news from the agency on who would be moving in or when. One day I met a man outside who told me he was a mental health counselor, who would be the new "manager' here. We never had a manager before. Then they put up security cameras, and trespassing warning signs. I started to wonder about what was about to occur.

Tonight I found out what's about to occur. They have turned my apartment building, where I have made myself a home for five years, into a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans, some of whom are coming directly off the streets to live here. Directly off the streets. I have nothing against homeless people. I have written here about how I was homeless myself and lived in shelters twice, when I was psychotic. But these people are coming from the streets. Some are coming from shelters, and some are also coming from a facility at the VA. They are all going to be men. All of them. So they are filling up 13 beds with men, and leaving Mary and I as the only women to be living in this situation. Then, I found out that the men are only living here for six month periods. So that means, we will have people coming and going, moving in and out again, much like with the jail diversion program. It won't be a permanent home for any of these people. So I will not be living in a regular apartment building anymore. It will be a place for transients.

I am not happy about this. I am also not happy that the woman who told me this, who will be on staff at the building part-time, told me not to let anybody know what she had told me because she wasn't supposed to tell me, but she thought that I should know about it. In other words, the agency has purposely kept these facts about where I live, from me, even though I have paid them rent on time monthly for five years and never caused them any problems, and also, I have a lease. My lease doesn't end until April. And so, when they told me I had a choice about leaving (which wasn't an option since I couldn't possibly find a place to go fast enough) back in March, or staying here, they failed to give me the facts about WHY I MIGHT WANT TO MOVE OUT.

As a woman, who is a survivor of sexual assault, I do not want to live in a building with 13 men who have PTSD and have just come off the streets and may be drug dealers or drug addicts or criminals of any variety, and will now be able to sit outside and watch me come and go at night, in the dark, where I will have NOBODY to protect me or help me if they do anything to me. I am not happy about this.

Mary is no help. She simply never goes anywhere. She goes out maybe once a week with her mother to get food. I offer to take her places, but it never ends up happening. She doesn't complain or contact anyone about anything. For example, when her apartment was flooded by toilet water because her toilet overflowed, she waited until two-three inches of water covered her entire apartment before she called anybody to help her. When the fire alarm went off a week ago, she didn't even go outside to see if there was an actual fire. I went and knocked on her door to tell her we needed to call the fire department. She told me she didn't think that was necessary, whilst the blaring of the alarm filled, not only our building, but the entire street. The fire department came and the officers told me I did the right thing by calling them. After all, it was a fire alarm. In other words, Mary is not going to be someone who calls 911 for me if she thinks I might be in trouble. Also, from inside her apartment she can't see me come and go from the parking lot in the first place.

This woman who will be working here told me that the person who will be "on staff" at night will be one of the homeless vets who lives here and "whoever seems like the best one of the bunch" to take charge at night. She then asked me to keep an eye ON HIM in case he is a trouble maker himself, and then I can let her know this. "But I'm not asking you to be a policeman or anything." She mentioned that they would call 911 if there was a problem because they're not going to "break up fights or anything like that". These people moving in will also have no jobs, and who knows what they will be doing all day. That is a recipe for disaster, in my opinion.

I do not feel safe in this situation. I deserve to feel safe in my own home, where I pay rent to live.

Why should people who happen to have a mental illness be treated like we are garbage and we can just be made to live in a transitional facility for homeless people rather than apartment building and not complain about it?? Why am I being lumped in with the people who have nowhere to go who don't even have to have a mental illness to move in here?? Everybody who has ever lived here was required to have a mental illness to live here. Now they just have to be homeless veterans.

I am sorry that there are so many homeless veterans. I am sorry that there are homeless people at all. I know what it was like to be homeless myself, however briefly it was. I feel for them. But I do not want to live in a transitional facility for homeless men. And, yes, she told me that every single one of them is going to be male. Because the facility "wouldn't make money if all the beds weren't filled". And they can't find enough homeless female vets to fill enough beds. So they are focusing solely on men.

This makes me very uncomfortable as a woman, and as a survivor, and as a feminist it pisses me off. Mary doesn't even know any of this is happening! I will have to be the one to inform her since the agency that owns this building has intentionally never informed us ABOUT ANYTHING.

Why do they get to treat us this way? As if we have no rights as tenants? As if we are subhuman and don't deserve respect? As if we shouldn't care where we live or who lives next door and downstairs and across from us. As if we shouldn't care ABOUT OUR BASIC SAFETY??

This really pisses me off.

I am not saying that there is anything bad about a person because he's homeless, living on the streets, and is a veteran. I am saying, from EXPERIENCE, that a transitional facility for people with nothing to do all day but get into trouble turns into a disaster, which is why they ended the jail diversion program here years ago. I am also saying that, however much I care about homelessness, and want to help end it, and want to be a social worker and help people who are in situations like that, I still feel that I have the right to feel safe where I LIVE and that I have the right TO KNOW what is going on WHERE I LIVE. Because, however much you may care about homelessness, I challenge you to say that you would actually feel comfortable living in a situation like this, as a single woman, alone, with no one there to look out for her safety at night. I don't think most women would feel comfortable in this situation. And I don't think that it is right or fair that, just because I have a psychiatric illness, I am expected to NOT CARE about this situation, and NOT CARE that I was never told what was going on, even though I PAY THE SAME RENT THAT SOMEONE WITHOUT A MENTAL ILLNESS WOULD BE PAYING. That is not right. That is injustice.

I should have been informed, and I should have been given a choice about whether I want to live in this kind of environment. But I was never given that choice, and neither was Mary, because we were never informed. Now I have a lease to live here until April, and I have nowhere else to go. I have no time to find another place to go. So I am not happy about this situation at all.

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