Perhaps, early in my career as a mental health counselor, I couldn’t consider the effect of mental health warehousing. Landing my second professional job gave me the financial power to leave a ghetto apartment in the most murderous city on the East Coast. Since I was only just entering a Master’s Program, I felt extremely privileged. As a result, I aligned myself with my supervisor and other more experienced workers. Without credentials, I was focused on working with people who would get my back.
One day, I received a client and was ready to get to work on housing issues, when I found out that she came attached with a more experienced case manager. Though not very talkative, she did tell me very clearly that she did not want to go to a particular boarding home, the largest such facility in the county. When I talked to the case manager who would later be my supervisor when I got promoted, he was clear about the woman’s future. She had to go to the unwanted boarding home.
“Wow, that girl is really sick!” I heard the coworker who worked the graveyard shift at the crisis house say.
“I don’t get it,” I said, “I don’t see why she can’t live where she wants to. I help other people find housing, why can’t I help her.”
“That girl is very sick, I can just tell by the way her eyes roll to the side” said my co-worker
I deferred to experience. Sure I had been hospitalized for six months myself, but I knew better than to make waves. The woman was labeled a schizophrenic and got shipped away to the very place she most did not want to go. She had been right not to trust any of us. For us, she was just protocol.
Once I graduated my Master’s program and was promoted, I visited the infamous boarding home which was buried in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the far reaches of the county. Out in the pines, there were few stores, lots of sand and aged pine trees, whose growth was stunted by fire. The pines were where most boarding homes were located. I admired the scenery as I drove out.
The infamous boarding home’s one-story buildings were made of quarter inch plywood and styled in rows like chicken coops. They were long and full of small rooms with cots and no furniture. . There was no insulation from the elements in any of the buildings. At the end of each row of rooms there was an open rec room where open vats of warm bug juice sat out under the dim lighting. There were no fans to drown out the buzz of the flies. These inside rooms reeked of sickness. The chipping linoleum floors were being mopped with cheap chemical stink water that reinforced the sick feel. Almost all the clients were either gone to a day program or had walked the three miles to the store. I could not even begin to picture what the place looked like when it was full.
When I finished I followed the owner to the front office. The owner’s daughter had been in my sister’s class at our posh private school before anorexia had lowered my social standing. Back at the office, the owner had barraged me with gossip and information about the school. By then I was learning to undermine the subservience facade of the mental health client. As a result, I found myself struggling not to be offensive to this woman who had helped pay for my rearing.
Once freed to collect my thoughts, I recall betting to myself that they treated mentally ill better back in the Middle Ages. So many good people I had worked with for years were living lives like this and I had never given it any consideration.
In a year, I made enough money to fund a move to the west coast. Within six months of moving, I made a risky job transfer into setting up services in a section eight housing authority facility. When I found out my supervisor had a cocaine habit, I stopped heeding her. Like a vigilante. I leaked info openly to a community activist and to newspapers and was starting to face unforeseen levels of threats.
One day, a resident who had pointed out the local drug kingpin to me, told me that I was deeply loved by all the residents, even the shady ones, but that they were all worried that I would end up becoming a resident of the building myself.
Within a week, after an unsuspected threat from a friend from my ghetto days who, it turned out, was connected, I was picked up out of a ditch on a mountain pass outside of Butte Montana. I had been harassed by police for the past two days since they had halted my escape to Canada. Finally, I surrendered to them.
Two months in, just when I had finally started to accept the very poor treatment I was receiving, I was transferred to the most chronic unit. The temperature inside was below freezing. There were icicles inside the window that sat above my head. It was almost as bad as the boarding home in South Jersey.
When I first entered those dank halls, I felt destined to behave with the subservient merriment of the thirty year residents. I was given old, dirty clothing so that I could layer up among the crowded halls. My appearance and sense of self declined. Fungus off the bathroom tiles grew under my toenails and warts covered by hands.
Now, I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, the survivor of a schizophrenia diagnosis. I still work in an inner city day program with great people, many of whom suffer the effects of mental health warehousing. It is my torment over the marginalization that accompanies a diagnosis that keeps me writing.
I write because now I know that there are so many untold stories that happen when vulnerable individuals get put in institutional warehouses. I write because twenty years ago a woman was committed to squalor and I did nothing. I write because I once was so arrogant so as to think it couldn’t happen to me. I write to better express love and support to the people I work for. I write because I know that warehousing is so very hard to come back from. I write because my efforts to help others escape are often futile. I write because still so many live in warehouses, not homes.
In this age of heightened social disparities, the propensity for dehumanizing people is on the rise. Now that the public is finally able to see the way that black men are shot indiscriminately by police. Now that American prisons are disproportionately filled with political-prisoners of color. Now we all know that years of slaughter in the Middle East can be traced back to fabricated evidence. Still, we blame all violence on the mentally ill, immigrants, and African-Americans. We think we can make ourselves safer by taking more power.
Already there are too many people who do even know about the warehouses that fill our inner-cities, our rural compounds and our otherwise ghettoized zones.