Last Sunday I was walking through Jamaica taking photos. As I rounded the corner of 171st Street and 90th Avenue, I noticed a black cat cross the street. Seconds later another cat followed, and then another, and another, until the handful of cats turned into a streaming deluge of cats, all headed towards the same destination.
As I moved closer I saw that they were running towards a chain-link fence, where an old man, bent at the waist, set down a small, blue plastic bowl. In his arms he cradled a few cans of cat food.
The old man greeted me as he laid out the cats’ dinner. As the cats from across the street gathered by the man’s shoes, even more cats began to appear, but from the other side of the fence. The cats moved swiftly and silently, emerging like apparitions from the recesses of a pair of burnt, abandoned houses.
The house closest to us was mostly black and gray ash, except for a swath of green ivy on its right side that had somehow managed to survive the wrath of a fire. The left side of the other house was worn-down and stained with the evidence of that fire, but besides the collection of old shoes, liquor bottles, moldy clothes and the other paraphernalia of neglect scattered around its perimeter, it was mostly intact.
I asked the man about the houses. Jamaica leads the state in foreclosure rates, and I had gotten so used to seeing rows of boarded up houses that I assumed the structures before me were more casualties of the housing crash.
But the old man, who told me that he had lived in the apartment across the street for decades, and who didn’t want to be named, said that a few years ago the first house turned into a place for squatters. During that time the house caught fire—maybe from a cigarette or candle left burning in the night. He didn’t know. Since the fire, the only thing inhabiting the houses has been a colony of feral cats.
Details about the people who lived next door are unclear. The man told me that a murder had happened there, the result of a love triangle gone terribly wrong. After the murder, he said that a homeless man froze to death on the back porch. I can’t verify any of this information— I submitted a request for the police records of any crimes or fires that happened in the two properties, and knocked on the doors of neighbors, but at least so far, my efforts to find out more haven’t proved successful.
But I did find out, after perusing the two buildings’ ownership records, that an organization called the Association for Rehabilitative Case Management and Housing, Inc., or ACMH, purchased the lots in 2008. And soon, the cats will have to find another place to live.
ACMH IS a non-profit agency that helps New Yorkers with mental illnesses. Part of their mission, besides helping people access city resources and develop job skills, is to provide their clients with low-cost, supportive housing. They have a handful of apartment complexes around the city, and a few “scatter sites” as well, where people live independently but still receive support from a caseworker. I called ACMH and talked to executive vice president Dan Johansson to find out more about ACMH’s plan for the lot.
He said that ACMH is planning to start construction on the lots in 2010, where they will build a seven-story, 68-unit apartment building called Markus Gardens. The complex will provide permanent, supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless people with severe mental illness. Those that get to live in the apartments will pay 30% of their income for rent, while the state will supply the rest.
Johansson told me that one reason ACMH chose to build in Jamaica is because Queens is the borough most underserved in supportive housing. Many people in New York who have mental illness often spend years floundering in the shelter system, or suffer from substance abuse problems, and need help finding and maintaining affordable housing.
Overall, he said, the community has been supportive of the construction plans, although the stigma attached to those with mental illness remains.
“There’s always people who are concerned,” about people with mental illness living in their neighborhood, Johansson said, adding that many people’s perception of mental illness is “that person on the subway.”
“But we also found in these meetings that…most people have some family member or they know of someone that has some mental illness to the extent that they can’t work, or are living at home,” he said. “I think a lot of people understand that mental illness can be a really debilitating thing.”
THIS WEEK I met Geraldine and Maly, two women who live at Garden House, one of ACMH’s supportive housing facilities in the East Village. They offered to share their stories with me so that I could better understand the struggles of the people who will take up residence at Markus Gardens. We sat together at a table, framed by the windows that looked out over the bushes of wild pink roses in the backyard garden.
Maly, a 41-year-old woman with light brown skin and black hair pulled into a tight ponytail, spoke first. In 2006, she said, she had a nervous breakdown after her mother passed away.
It wasn’t the first time Maly, who lived in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., experienced mania or depression. For over a decade she suffered through manic highs, followed by debilitating lows—she would stay awake for days, filled with anxiety to the point where she would nearly swallow her tongue, and then sleep for days. But her family didn’t understand what she was going through, she said, and her three sisters were often abusive.
“My father used to say, ‘You said you’d bounce back from this,” she said, and cast her olive green eyes down to the table. She said that she was plagued with guilt for making her family upset. “I said I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she added.
Desperate, with no one to turn to, she ran away.
“I decided to take the first train out of town,” she said. “I didn’t say goodbye.”
The first train leaving D.C. happened to be bound for New York. Alone and confused—Maly had never been to New York before—she spent a few days sleeping in Central Park until she found housing at a shelter run by a group of nuns. She spent eleven months in the shelter while attending a treatment program at Bellevue Hospital. It was her caseworker there who helped her find housing at Garden House.
Geraldine was a successful, independent woman who had worked as an executive secretary for the NYPD and in the hotel industry. She was always working, in fact, and never married or had children. But she was very close to her family. Like Maly, it was after Geraldine’s parents died that she began to suffer from debilitating depression and mood swings. Eventually, she lost her job, and after her job went the Long Island house she was living in. It was the house she and her brothers and sisters had grown up in.
After a brief stay in a hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she moved back to Manhattan and settled in with a friend—she couldn’t afford her own apartment. But after five years, Geraldine’s friend asked her to leave, and she became homeless for the first time in her life.
Geraldine is 60 years old now, but much of her appearance is reminiscent of the days before she fell ill. When we met she was dressed in a snow-white wool cardigan and blue jeans, and her dyed blonde hair was cut stylishly into bangs that sit neatly above her brown eyes.
But her voice is rough and the lines around her eyes and mouth tell of a time when she spent over a year trapped in the shelter system. She spent five months at a shelter on 30th Street, sleeping on two chairs at night and waiting in lines for hours to eat. Eventually, she broke down and begged her caseworker to help her find a home.
“I cried to the case workers,” she said. “I said I’m an elderly woman, I can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep on these chairs.”
She spent another six months in another, slightly better shelter on Lafayette Street, which had beds, before she was accepted at Garden House. Like Maly, Geraldine was “thrilled” to have her own, private apartment.
The stigma of mental illness has deeply affected both women. Those closest to them, they said, either didn’t know how to help them or didn’t want to.
Maly has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is characterized by hallucinations, depression and manic episodes. The only family member she has spoken to since she ran away to New York is her brother-in-law, who wrote her a letter informing her than her father had passed away.
Besides a brother who helped her find treatment before she became homeless, it is only recently that Geraldine has been invited to family gatherings and parties.
“All the weddings, all the christenings, all the parties I was never invited to,” Geraldine said. “I felt so abandoned.”
“When I first got sick, I wanted to tell people how much pain I was in,” Maly said. “But I’ve learned that you go to your psychiatrist for that.”
Geraldine added that she always remembered what one of her doctors told her: “If you want to succeed in the outside world, don’t tell people you were sick.”
Maly nodded. “People look at you differently,” she said.
Maly is only a few months away from graduating the two-year program at Garden House. Soon, with the help of her caseworker, she will find permanent housing. Geraldine is just beginning her stay at the complex. Both women are proud of the large, clean apartments they live in. Geraldine’s living room is decorated with a vase stuffed with peacock feathers and framed photographs of her family. Maly decorated the white walls of her living room with a few prints of paintings by her favorite artist, Salvador Dali. In her bedroom, stuffed cats sit on a shelf over the bed.
“This place really feels like home,” Maly said, smiling. “I’m not looking forward to leaving.”
I WALKED through the skeletal frame of the burnt house’s front door. As I approached the staircase leading up the second floor, a pair of cats licking their paws flitted up the stairs into the dark.
I moved towards the back of the house, stepping over piles of charred wood, garbage, shreds of clothing and the slants of afternoon light streaming through the cracks in the walls. There were some parts of the house that still had their color; a glint of green door in the back room, a shred of blue curtain hanging from the bathroom window.
In the other house, I was able to go upstairs because there wasn’t much fire damage inside. Here there was more evidence of the people who had called this place home for the past few years. Piles of bottles, clothes and blankets littered every room of the house. In what used to be the living room, there was nothing but garbage.
It’s nice to know that these houses won’t remain like this for long—that soon, the community will have a building to be proud of. It’s even better to know that people with mental illness in Jamaica, people like Maly and Geraldine, will soon have a warm place to sleep, a place they can start their recovery process in, a place they can call home.
Post script: This blog was written as part of an on-going interest in these issues. In the future I hope to hold more interviews with services like AMCH in Jamaica, and people like Maly and Geraldine, and will write about them here, as much as I can.