MENTALLY ILL AND ALONE

An ambitious housing program offers afflicted New Yorkers a better life by moving them out of institutions and into private homes. Frontline, in partnership with ProPublica, investigates how this sudden independence has proven deadly. We have their findings.

Aired on February 26, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING.

WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

. I'M JENNA FLANAGAN.

MENTALLY ILL AND LIVING ON THEIR OWN.

BUT ARE THEY READY TO DO SO?

UNDER AN AMBITIOUS HOUSING PLAN PROVIDED BY THE STATE, THOUSANDS OF MENTALLY ILL NEW YORKERS ARE OFFERED THE CHANCE TO MOVE OUT OF ADULT HOMES AND INTO SUBSIDIZED APARTMENTS.

BUT FOR MANY, THE SUDDEN SHIFT TOWARDS INDEPENDENCE HAS PROVEN TO BE HAZARDOUS AND DEADLY.

IN A NEW DOCUMENTARY, FRONTLINE, IN PARTNERSHIP WITH PROPUBLICA, INVESTIGATES THIS FAULT AHOUSING SYSTEM.

IT WAS A LAND MARK RULING.

THOUSANDS HAD A RIGHT TO LIVE ON THEIR OWN.

THERE WAS A QUESTION WHETHER PEOPLE WHO HAD BEEN INSTITUTIONALIZED CAN LIVE SUCCESSFULLY IN THE COMMUNITY.

AND A RIGHT TO FAIL.

FRONTLINE AND PROPUBLICA INVESTIGATES.

I HAD NO COMPANY, ACTUALLY.

THE QUESTION IS, WHEN DO YOU TAKE AWAY SOMEBODY'S LIBERTY?

TUESDAY AT 10:00, 9:00 CENTRAL ON MOST PBS STATIONS.

HERE WITH MORE ON THIS INVESTIGATION IS FRONTLINE CORRESPONDENT JOAQUIN SAPIEN.

WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU.

SO THIS WAS A DIFFICULT ONE FOR ME TO WATCH, BECAUSE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SOME OF THE MOST MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN SOCIETY.

SO EXPLAIN TO PEOPLE WHAT IT IS THAT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT WITH MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE IN ADULT HOUSING AND THE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING.

THE FOCUS OF THE STORY IS ON RESIDENTS OF WHAT ARE CALLED ADULT HOMES, WHICH ARE ESSENTIALLY LARGE GROUP HOMES SCATTERED THROUGHOUT THE OUTSKIRTS OF NEW YORK CITY, AND THEY WERE THE SUBJECT OF A REALLY DAMNING SERIES OF STORIES IN THE NEW YORK TIMES IN 2002 ABOUT HOW MISERABLE CONDITIONS WERE.

PEOPLE WERE DYING IN THEIR ROOMS DUE TO LACK OF AIR CONDITIONING.

THERE WAS A LOT OF MEDICAL PROCEDURES THAT PEOPLE DIDN'T NEED THAT OPERATORS WERE ABLE TO PROFIT FROM.

ALL OF THIS RESULTED IN A LAWSUIT THAT WAS FILED IN BROOKLYN FEDERAL COURT.

IT TOOK A LONG TIME FOR THE LITIGATION TO PLAY OUT, BUT ULTIMATELY THERE WAS A SENTLEMENT WHICH THESE PEOPLE WERE OFFERED A CHANCE TO LIVE ON THEIR OWN CALLED SCATTERED SITE SUPPORTED HOUSING.

WHICH IS A CHANCE FOR YOU TO LIVE INDEPENDENTLY, THE SAME AS ANYONE ELSE WOULD IN AN APARTMENT WITH SOME SERVICES IN PLACE.

THE IDEA IS THAT YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE A WHOLE TEAM OF PROFESSIONALS, EACH WITH THEIR OWN DISTINCT AREA OF EXPERTISE THAT'S GOING TO HELP YOU MAKE THIS ADJUSTMENT INTO INDEPENDENT LIVING.

WHAT WE FOUND IS THAT THOSE SUPPORTS OFTEN FELL SHORT OF THE NEEDS OF THE PEOPLE WHO HAD MOVED, AND IN A NUMBER OF CASES, THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO HAD SUCH SEVERE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES THAT IT WAS QUESTIONABLE AS TO WHETHER THEY SHOULD HAVE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO BEGIN WITH.

AND THAT SORT OF TIES INTO THE TITLE OF THE FILM ITSELF 'THE RIGHT TO FAIL.'

THAT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN PART OF THE SETTLEMENT WAS THAT NOT ONLY DO PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO TRY AND LIVE ON THEIR OWN, BUT THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO FAIL AT IT.

BUT THE FILM MAKES CLEAR WHOSE FAULT THOSE FAILURES ARE.

THROUGH THE SETTLEMENT, IT WAS DETERMINED THESE PEOPLE HAD BEEN DEPRIVED OF THEIR CIVIL RIGHTS, SEGREGATED FROM THE REST OF SOCIETY AND FORCED TO LIVE IN GROUP HOMES THAT THEY DID NOT NECESSARILY HAVE TO LIVE IN.

AND THAT THEY HAD TO BE GIVEN THE CHANCE TO SUCCEED, AND ALSO THE RIGHT TO FAIL ON THEIR OWN.

10 THAT'S WHERE THE TITLE COMES FROM.

YOU OFTEN HEAR IT DESCRIBED AS THE DIGNITY OF RISK.

OBVIOUSLY, WITH PEOPLE AS COMPROMISED AS THESE FOLKS, THERE IS INHERENTLY GOING TO BE SOME RISK INVOLVED WITH THEM LIVING ON THEIR OWN.

WHICH IS WHY YOU NEED A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM IN TACT, TO MAKE SURE THEY SUCCEED.

TO SORT OF LAY BARE WHAT YOU WERE FINDING AS TO WHAT WAS GOING ON, THERE WAS SOME CASES THAT YOU FOLLOWED VERY CLOSELY.

ONE THAT SEEMED TO BE THE MOST ENGAGING WAS THAT OF A GENTLEMAN, MR. BUNCH.

TALK ABOUT HIM.

WE WERE TOLD EARLY ON ABOUT A PERSON NAMED NESTOR BUNCH, WHOSE EXPERIENCE SEEMED TO REFLECT MANY OF THE BIGGEST SHORTCOMINGS OF PUBLIC HOUSING.

HE MOVED INTO A NUMBER OF APARTMENTS OVER THE COURSE OF 15 OR SO MONTHS.

THE FIRST ONE, THE FIRST TIME LIVING ON HIS OWN.

THIS IS A PERSON WITH SERIOUS SCHIZOPHRENIA, WHO HALLUCINATES, HEARS VOICES, WHO HAS NEVER BEFORE LIVED BY HIMSELF.

AND HE MOVED INTO THIS APARTMENT WHERE HE HAD TROUBLE KEEPING ENOUGH FOOD STOCKED IN HIS REFRIGERATOR, KEEPING UP WITH PAYING BILLS, THINGS LIKE THAT.

AND HE FELL INTO A PRETTY SERIOUS DEPRESSION.

HE BEGAN TO HAVE SUICIDAL THOUGHTS.

HE WAS HOSPITALIZED FOR THAT.

AND THE PEOPLE INVOLVED IN HIS CARE, THE SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCIES, DECIDED WHAT HE NEEDED WAS TO LIVE WITH A ROOMMATE.

SO THEY PAIRED HIM WITH A MAN NAMED BERNARD WALKER.

THAT PAIRING LASTED A MATTER OF WEEKS.

NESTOR DISCOVERED BERNARD NAKED IN BED DURING A BLIZZARD IN THEIR APARTMENT BUILDING OUT IN JAMAICA, QUEENS.

NESTOR SPIRALED AGAIN.

HE WENT BACK INTO PSYCHIATRIC WARD A COUPLE OF TIMES, CAME OUT, MOVED IN WITH ANOTHER ROOMMATE.

THAT ROOMMATE FELT THAT HE WAS BEING ASKED TO TAKE CARE OF NESTOR.

AND HE WAS OVERWHELMED BY THAT ASSIGNMENT, WHICH HE DIDN'T FEEL HE DESERVED.

SO THEN NESTOR MOVED INTO ONE MORE APARTMENT, AND THIS WAS OCCUPIED BY A PERSON WHO ALSO HAD SCHIZOPHRENIA, HAD A VERY SERIOUS ALCOHOL PROBLEM.

AND ACTUALLY A HISTORY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.

AND AS IT TURNS OUT, NESTOR WAS DISCOVERED IN THAT APARTMENT VERY SERIOUSLY INJURED.

HIS RIBS WERE BROKEN.

HE HAD KIDNEY DAMAGE.

AND EVEN THEN THERE WAS AN EFFORT TO KEEP HIM IN HIS OWN APARTMENT, IN INDEPENDENT HOUSING.

FINALLY, HE CAME OUT AND MOVED BACK INTO A GROUP HOME, AND WAS DISCOVERED ON THE STREET AGAIN, OUTSIDE OF A POLICE STATION WITH HYPOTHERMIA, AND SERIOUSLY DELUSIONAL.

AND NOW HE'S IN SORT OF A -- HE'S BACK IN INDEPENDENT HOUSING, BUT WITH MUCH MORE SERVICES IN PLACE, AND HE'S ACTUALLY DOING QUITE WELL.

SO I GUESS THE QUESTION BECOMES, WHO IS REALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE PEOPLE ONCE THEY'RE PUT INTO THESE SUBSIDIZED APARTMENTS?

BECAUSE IT SOUNDS LIKE NESTOR WAS VERY MUCH ON HIS OWN.

THAT'S A REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION.

WHAT WE FOUND IS THAT RESPONSIBILITY WAS DEFUSED ACROSS SO MANY ACTORS, THAT THERE'S AMPLE SPACE FOR FINGER POINTING AMONG ALL OF THEM.

THERE'S ONE CONTRACTOR THAT'S RESPONSIBLE FOR HOUSING.

ANOTHER CONTRACTOR RESPONSIBLE FOR MEDICAL SERVICES.

THERE'S OTHER PEOPLE WHO ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR PSYCHIATRIC CARE.

THESE APARTMENTS ARE NOT ACTUALLY LICENSED BY THE OFFICE OF MENTAL HEALTH, BUT THE OFFICE OF MENTAL HEALTH DOES HAVE SOME RESPONSIBILITY TO OVERSEE SOME OF THESE SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCIES.

SO THERE'S ALL THESE DIFFERENT ACTORS, IT'S A DIZZYING ARRAY OF PEOPLE WHO ARE EACH SUPPOSED TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN CORNER OF THIS.

WHAT HAPPENS IS, IT'S VERY UNCLEAR WHO ULTIMATELY IS ACCOUNTABLE WHEN SOMETHING LIKE THIS GOES TERRIBLY WRONG.

ALL RIGHT.

FIRST OF ALL, THANK YOU FOR YOUR REPORTING, BECAUSE I THINK THIS IS A PROBLEM THAT WE TALK SO MUCH ABOUT MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE IN NEW YORK CITY, AND HOW BEST TO TREAT THEM, ET CETERA.

BUT THIS IS DEFINITELY SOMETHING MOST PEOPLE DON'T KNOW ABOUT.

SO THANK YOU FOR YOUR REPORTING.

OF COURSE, WE'LL BE LOOKING TO SEE IF SOMETHING COMES OF HAVING THIS STORY NOW BROADCAST ON FRONTLINE.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

'RIGHT TO FAIL,' GO TO OUR WEBSITE TO FIND OUT LISTINGS.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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