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We need your support: Housing advocates for the mentally ill protest outside the Capitol.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Don’t Leave Us Out in the Cold

Housing advocates for the mentally ill protest in Albany to highlight the need for reform

 

‘Housing for special needs is an extremely important area, and the Pataki administration did not invest in it,” said state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn), a member of the Senate Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. Gov. Eliot Spitzer already has expressed an interest in this issue, Montgomery said, an issue that former Gov. George Pataki ignored for too long.

On Tuesday, supporters of housing for the mentally ill gathered in Albany to call on Spitzer and the state Legislature to include $100 million in the upcoming state budget to maintain existing housing for those with mental disabilities and to fund new construction. Montgomery was one of many public figures who spoke at the rally.

The event, organized by the New York State Campaign for Mental Health Housing, began in the well of the Legislative Office Building in Albany. The area was crowded wall-to-wall with supporters, most wearing lime-green shirts proclaiming “The road to recovery starts with a good home.”

The event drew people from around the state as well as many from the Capital Region. Genevieve Plair, 36, grew up in foster care due to her mother’s schizophrenia. When she was too old for foster care and still had nowhere to go, she lived in a group home.

Plair, who gave up her three children due to her own mental illness, now lives in a homeless shelter in Albany. Her current situation, as well as her history with the financial and emotional problems caused by mental illness, is what led her to Tuesday’s rally. Plair herself is in need of housing; she said she must be out of the homeless shelter by April 1.

“It’s very difficult trying to find an apartment,” she said. “I just don’t want to live in a rat trap.” Plair wants a decent place to live where her children can come to visit and be comfortable. “I don’t want some place where there are roaches or mice crawling around.”

Likewise, Schenectady resident Roy Neville, who spoke at the event, has experience with the need for housing for the mentally ill. Neville has two children with schizophrenia, one in Albany and one in Schenectady, who live in housing provided by nonprofit groups. Neville stresses the importance of housing as the backbone to a stable life. “It’s made all the difference in the world for my two kids, and all the others who have a stable place to live,” he said. “They can do OK.”

He said that different illnesses and different situations require a wide variety of options. More options would give the mentally disabled “a chance to be as normal as the rest of us and get along with other people, get some insight, be voters, be workers and good neighbors,” he said. “We don’t want people in institutions.”

Neville is grateful that his children are lucky enough to have apartments provided by nonprofit mental-health groups, but recognizes that many are less fortunate. “It’s a good system,” he said. “It’s just not enough for everybody.”

Currently there are more than 10,000 homeless New Yorkers suffering from mental illness. Thousands of others are living in shelters, hospitals, or adult homes. The Campaign for Mental Health Housing said that 35,000 new units are needed.

“In the previous administration, the Office of Mental Health commissioner was brought in with a clear mandate that OMH was not in the housing business, and housing was not an issue that they should concern themselves with,” said campaign chairman Steve Coe. “So there was no attention paid to the issue. In the last three of four years, nothing has moved forward.”

This inaction motivated the group to stage Tuesday’s event, the largest gathering for the issue that Coe has seen in 30 years. He says that almost 1,600 people registered to attend the event, which featured numerous speakers from the Legislature and culminated with a rally in front of the Capitol.

A megaphone was passed around on the steps of the Capitol, and when one attendee asked how many members of the crowd had ended up in an adult home due to their mental illness, the crowd responded with a sizeable amount of raised hands. The same was true when the crowd was asked about being forced to live in homeless shelters and hospitals.

Before marching around the building, supporters arranged themselves in the shape of a house, hoping to make the image visible from the windows of the Capitol building. Someone shouted to Gov. Spitzer, in absentia, to please “not be another Gov. Pataki.” That seemed to be the sentiment among supporters: hope for change in the future, but still a fear of being let down by the state once again.

—David Canfield


What a Week

What a Surprise

In a widely expected move, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) officially announced her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president Saturday, putting herself in the running with fellow U.S. Sens. Barack Obama (Illinois), Joe Biden (Delaware) and Christopher Dodd (Connecticut), as well as U.S. Rep Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), former vice-president nominee John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, among others. The former first lady said in a video on her Web site that she will spend the next two years “doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush’s mistakes and restore our hope and optimism.”

I Don’t Think He Likes Us

Recently reelected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lashed out at Washington once again Saturday when he told U.S. officials to “go to hell, gringos” on his weekly TV and radio show. Chavez is unhappy with Washington’s concern that he has too much concentrated power, sparked by legislation expected to pass this week giving Chavez an 18-month window in which he can pass laws by decree. Chavez also called Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice “missy” and attacked U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Graphic Enough?

The New York Times reported Monday that in 2007, pornography film studios are preparing to release their new and old movies on high-definition DVDs. The HD-DVD format—which renders even the tiniest details visible—has brought new challenges for porn stars who can’t hide from the camera. They’ve armed themselves with extra makeup and self-tanner to cover cellulite, pimples, stretch marks, etc. The prospect of HD porn doesn’t appeal to actress Stormy Daniels. “I’m not 100-percent sure why anyone would want to see their porn in HD,” she said.

Madam Speaker in the House

President George Bush began his State of the Union address by nudging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call order to a room that was applauding him. He then congratulated Pelosi for being the first female speaker of the House. Pelosi stood when Bush spoke of supporting the troops, and remained seated—so did about half the room—when he spoke of a troop surge in Iraq. Her actions seemed to dominate the mood of the room.



Let’s Learn About Sex

Legislation to bring comprehensive sex ed to New York gets another look

Although New York currently reports some of the highest teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted-disease statistics in the country, it is one of several states that do not require schools to teach sex-education courses. The decision about whether to mandate sex education lies with localities and individual school districts. For districts and localities that choose to require sex education, that decision typically is accompanied by the assumption of all costs associated with training, staffing and curriculum supplies. That is, unless they choose programs with an abstinence-only focus.

In an effort to increase students’ access to comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, a group of advocates and legislators gathered at the Legislative Office Building in Albany Tuesday to announce the reintroduction of the Healthy Teens Act. The bill, which never made it to the governor’s desk during the previous two sessions, would create a state grant-program pool from which districts and other organizations could apply for funds to institute age-appropriate sex-education curricula.

Of the millions of dollars the state makes available for sex education, the largest portion is available exclusively to abstinence-only programs. Each year, the federal government provides New York with millions of dollars earmarked for programs with an abstinence-only focus. By accepting the funds, the state is required to match a certain amount of the federal sum with state dollars. In 2005, the federal contribution and state-matching amount resulted in approximately $9.7 million in funding for abstinence-only education, according to Family Planning Advocates of New York State.

“Nothing has ever shown that abstinence-only [education] works,” said JoAnn Smith, president of FPA. “The studies show that it doesn’t, and what does work is comprehensive sex education, sex education which, of course, does talk about abstinence but also does not abandon young people who become sexually active.”

The bill introduced Tuesday in both houses of the state Legislature is the same bill that was introduced in 2005 and 2006, but it has a new Senate sponsor: Sen. George Winner (R-Elmira). During both the 2005 and 2006 sessions, the Assembly passed the legislation with bipartisan support. The legislation failed to pass the Senate, however, once dying in the health committee and, most recently, passing committee but never receiving a Senate vote.

“There has been significant opposition from religious organizations and the Catholic Church,” explained Winner, a member of the Senate health committee. He noted pressure from these organizations to not expand sex education beyond abstinence-only instruction as a significant roadblock.

While FPA ultimately would like comprehensive sex education to be made available to every student in the state, the Healthy Teens bill is offered as a compromise and alternative to a statewide mandate.

“Quite frankly, what we’ve seen is that the schools are very stressed,” Smith said. “They have an enormous amount of responsibilities, and if you tell them you have to do something but you don’t give them the funds to help them accomplish it, you’re really playing a trick both on the schools and on the students. In order to make this work, we felt we needed to work with communities that wanted to do it, and we had to give them resources in order to make it work right.”

If the bill passes, the amount of available grant money would be subject to annual appropriations and awarded based on a set of criteria that takes into consideration the teen pregnancy and STD rates in the applicant community.

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


It’s a Matter of Civility

Legal-services advocates say 10 years has been long enough to go so underfunded

New York state is failing to provide for the basic rights of its poor, said Anne Erickson of Empire Justice Center, by its continual failure to provide adequate funding for those firms and agencies fighting for civil-legal rights.

On Thursday, representatives of the New York State Equal Justice Commission gathered in the Legislative Office Building in Albany to announce the release of its report Expanding Access to Justice: New York’s Next Challenge and to call upon the new governor to make civil-legal services a priority in his administration. The commission is composed of nearly two dozen law firms and agencies—including local and state bar associations and community representatives—concerned with providing free legal services to the 2.8 million people living at or below the poverty line in New York. These services include assistance in all aspects of civil matters: housing, welfare, disability, and family law.

The commission is asking Gov. Eliot Spitzer to allow “a permanent Access to Justice fund at a level of $50 million dollars” in his first budget, to designate an agency that will oversee this fund and to create a home within the executive branch for civil-legal-service providers.

New York trails most of its neighbors, and many other states, in its funding for civil-legal services. According to the American Bar Association, in 2006 New York provided only $2.54 per poor person of funding for these services. In comparison, New Jersey provided $23.44 per poor person and Minnesota provided $32.33.

“We are just trying to get back to where we were,” said Lillian Moy, with the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. “We are just trying to get back to where—10 years ago—the chief judge said we needed to be.”

Moy is referring to a 1998 report, commissioned by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and completed by the Legal Services Project, in which it was determined that the state would need to provide $40 million to serve the basic legal needs of the poor in New York state.

At the current funding level, $6.8 million, Moy said, her firm will face another year of frustrating inability to meet all of the demands of the community. “We simply cannot provide for the majority of people that need our services, and we have to say ‘no’ to people a lot,” she said. “That is the hard part. . . . We have to limit the number of calls we take so we can maintain the quality of service we provide.”

This is a big drain on her staff, she said, constantly having to say “no.”

According to a report released by the Legal Services Corporation in 2005, 13,305 people in New York were turned away from legal aid within a two-month period. Extrapolate that number over a full year, and nearly 80,000 people with legitimate need were denied aid.

“Frankly, working the front desk at Legal Aid has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world,” Moy said. Many days, her office has to stop taking new clients by 10 AM.

“But this doesn’t go away,” she said. “Advocates are always faced with the limitations. But the consequences of our not helping can be really drastic. They lose their housing, or they can’t get divorced from a batterer. They can’t qualify for health care or Medicaid that they really need.”

When talking about state funding of civil-legal services during the Pataki administration, said Erickson, the process can be summed in one word: chaotic.

“Over the past 10 or so years in New York, we have approached funding civil-legal services basically as a ‘super’ member item by the Assembly majority,” Erickson said. “They would try to set aside a chunk of funding, and line items in the budget would provide funding.”

Though she said it is grateful for the Assembly’s help, this form of funding always left the civil-legal community vulnerable. In 1998, Gov. George Pataki vetoed all of the monies in member items that would have flowed to civil-legal services. Last year, the governor vetoed these Assembly member items again, but both houses overrode the veto unanimously.

“It is always touch-and-go,” Erickson said. “But now, with this new governor, what we are saying is now is a new day. Now is the day. We need a new approach. We need a policy approach to civil-legal services. We need an office of justice. We need somebody in the executive branch who will be in charge of these services.”

“We are barely meeting 20 percent of the need,” Erickson continued. “We have been in the trenches scraping and fighting, putting things together by glue. We need some stable core funds where we can start to meet the community need. We will still go after grants, contracts, foundations and whoever else we can shake a stick at. We just need to core operating funds.”

Will the Spitzer administration be a supporter? Erickson and Moy can’t say for sure. But they believe that Spitzer is open to the idea, and he has proven that he is dedicated to justice.

“We have had some good meetings, but I guess it is not over till it is over,” Moy said, and laughs. “I think he [Spitzer] really gets the issue.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net



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