'UNWELCOME' HOMES

Group home residents are free to leave – but often don't know it, thanks to greedy operators.

By Mary Hanbury 

Thousands of New York City’s mentally ill are housed in privately owned adult group homes, legally free to leave – but a court-appointed monitor said many facilities improperly pressure residents to stay.

Some group homes deploy scare tactics, mislead residents about their options and prevent independent counselors from even meeting with the mentally ill to discuss housing, according to a 2016 report by the monitor, Clarence Sundram.

A mentally ill person at one home was told that if he left, “no one will care about him,” Sundram reported.

A 73-year-old ex-Marine who lives in a Queens group home told the NYCity News Service he was subjected to such tactics – leaving him feeling stuck in a “hellhole.”

Advocates who sued and got the oversight monitoring say the reason for the pressure is clear: money. Group homes get reimbursed from Medicaid and other programs for every person they house, so losing residents means losing revenue.

“They are profit businesses and they want to make as much money as possible,” said Jota Borgmann, a lawyer with MFY Legal Services, whose attorneys were part of the legal actions over treatment at adult group homes.

Resident Norman Bloomfield is suing Surf Manor for Adults in Coney Island, where he has been living for the past 14 years. (Photo: Mary Hanbury)

ABUSES LEAD TO COURT SETTLEMENT

Several decades ago, adult group homes were seen as a humane answer to large psychiatric wards. In the wake of deinstitutionalization, thousands of mentally ill were dispersed into smaller adult group homes, in the hope of providing better conditions and integrating them into neighborhoods.

It didn’t always work out that way.

Investigations in the past two decades uncovered abuse, neglect and poor oversight in New York City’s group homes. That included a 2002 Pulitzer-winning investigation by The New York Times, lawsuits and a state inquiry.

A group of mentally ill residents sued New York State in 2003 to enforce rules that give the mentally ill a choice of where to stay. The federal government joined the litigation. Under a 2013 federal court settlement, the mentally ill are supposed to be able to choose whether to reside in more independent living situations, like apartments where social workers could check on them and help them out.

As part of the settlement in 2013, counselors are supposed meet with the mentally ill and their families to explain housing options. Group homes could not interfere with the consultations and were told not to stymie any resident who opted to move. Court-appointed independent monitoring was set up to track whether the state and private adult group homes were living up to promises.

In New York City, the settlement covered 4,300 mentally ill residents in 23 different adult group homes. The plan is to relocate anyone who wants to move within five years, though efforts are behind schedule.

While some group homes appear to be meeting the spirit of the agreement, the inspectors found other homes have used scare tactics and prevented counselors from meeting with residents.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Geoff Lieberman, executive director of the disability advocacy group Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled, which helps adult homes residents with the transition.

He said it is not unusual for residents to stay in adult homes for more than 10 years. Lieberman noted the effects of living in an institution where you are unable to do anything for yourself takes a toll.

DOCUMENTING DISCOURAGEMENT

Sundram, who has a long history of working with the disabled, released his most recent annual report in April 2016. Among his findings:

  • Caseworkers counseling the mentally ill “talk of the subtle and not so subtle influences that they feel the adult group home administrators and staff have on the process.”
  • Caseworkers advising about housing options faced difficulties in getting into the homes and setting up counseling sessions. In one instance, counselors arrived at a group home before 10 a.m. but staff at the front desk did not call any residents down for another hour, leaving time to meet only one person.
  • Housing counselors tried a mass mailing to residents at an unidentified group home, inviting them to an event. No one showed up
  • At one unnamed group home, counselors opted to meet with the mentally ill in the laundry room, sometimes having to talk over the noise of the machines. The alternative was to meet in a small room with a camera and where the group home’s staff could overhear their conversations.
  • As of March 2016, almost 90 percent of those in adult group homes had been advised about housing options. But compared with the previous year, the number who said they would be interested in moving had dropped from 60 to 46.8 percent.
  • The process to move out is taking longer than it should: only 15 percent of the 1,600 who said they want to relocate have actually done so.

Among the cases at city group homes named in the report:

  • Mermaid Manor in the Rockaways section of Queens faced four allegations of “discouragement” between September and November 2015. The state Department of Health substantiated all of the claims, the most of any group home in the report. One resident said Mermaid Manor administrators told him “no one will care about him and no one will take care of him” if he left,  a caseworker reported. Those who said they wanted to relocate from Mermaid Manor plunged from 70 percent a year earlier to 40 percent. The operator declined to comment.
  • At Central Assisted Living, also in Far Rockaway, counselors have talked with 169 residents and 53 said they would leave – posting a 31 percent rate of those interested in leaving. That was the lowest level for any group home in the report. Still, no one had actually moved out in two years. The director declined to comment.
  • At New Gloria’s Manor in Rockaway Park, the number of residents who said they wanted to move fell from 46 percent to 40 percent. In all, 42 people said they would relocate. But only two have done so. The director did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
  • At New Haven Manor in the Far Rockaways, independent housing counselors were prevented from talking with mentally ill residents about their options for several weeks. New Haven Manor compiled a form letter for residents to sign saying they did not want more independent housing. Seventy-four letters were sent by residents. Monitors found some signed the letter mistakenly believing they were writing to say they did not want to move immediately, not that they were uninterested relocating later to supported housing. In addition, the percentage of residents at New Haven Manor interested in moving plunged from 79 percent a year earlier to 52 percent.

Sam Orzel, who took over as director of the home in October 2016, said that the previous administration felt that the independent housing advisors were being too aggressive. “Some residents were complaining they were pushed too much,” he said.

Borgmann said fear is often used as a weapon by some group home operators. “Owners scare residents into thinking that if they hospitalized, they will be put back on the street,” Borgmann said.

“There is a lot of skill that is required in getting them to move,” she said. “It’s not a simple question of ‘Do you want to move?’ It is a more intensive process than that and requires more intensive interviewing.”

To be sure, Sundram noted in his monitoring report that there have been improvements. All but 10 percent of the mentally ill in New York City’s group homes have met with counselors about moving, a vast improvement from a year earlier, when only one-third had met with independent housing advisors.

The report does document several case of people who moved out but did not transition well at first. One unnamed person neglected to take his medication regularly, mismanaged money, disturbed neighbors and even was found once having smeared feces in his apartment. Yet with additional support he was able to try again in a studio apartment in the Bronx and, with increased support, is doing well, according to the report.

Those “who have made the transition are, with few exceptions, generally doing well in their new homes and are happy to have made the move,” according to Sundram.

 

STUCK IN A ‘HELLHOLE’

A veteran describes life in a Queens group home.
     Resident Ronald White in his bedroom at New Gloria's Manor Home for Adults, December 2016 (Photo: Mary Hanbury)

In 2009, Ronald White, suffering from depression and grappling with chronic lung disease, said he was given a choice when being released from a hospital: Go to a group home for the mentally ill or face homelessness.

The ex-Marine reluctantly moved into New Gloria’s Manor in Rockaway Park.

“I have been wanting to move out of here since I moved in,” said White, 73.  “I wouldn’t wish this place on my worst enemy.”

The facility was described in a 2016 independent court monitor report as an “outlier” because so few residents left. The report found that some group homes use pressure tactics to keep residents from moving – charges echoed by White.

He said a director for the group home frequently listens in on conversations. “Every now and then he will have a member of staff come through, trying to hear what is going on, even though they are not supposed to be doing that,” he said. “These people are so afraid of him that they believe he can put them on the street.”

“It’s a business,” said White, “that’s all this is, and they look at us and see dollar signs.”

White has shared a bedroom and bathroom with another resident with mental illness. He has a bed and side table, chest of drawers, and chair to himself. In this box-like space he houses all his possessions.

He said the worst part of being in a group home is losing his independence. He hasn’t cooked himself a meal in years.

In June 2016, White said he was told he would be moving to his own apartment. “They build me up, saying: ‘You are going to be moving out soon,’” he said.

“If I get out of here I am definitely getting myself a bike,” White said. “In the meantime I am stuck in this hellhole. I am tired of this place and if anyone says they are not, they are out of their minds.”

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