Lawrence Garner, 50, was admitted to the alcoholic rehabilitation program at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1972, after spending many years wandering the city streets, sleeping in empty houses and abandoned cars. In 1976, he left St. Elizabeths and started looking for an apartment, but time after time was turned down by landlords because he had been a patient of the hospital.
Finally, Garner says, he was forced to live with his sister and her family in a crowded apartment in Northwest D.C. While there, he says, the crowded conditions created considerable stress and nearly caused him to start drinking again.
But now Garner has his own apartment and with it a new sense of independence. He was helped by the Special Apartment Program at the St. Elizabeths Area D Mental Health Center. "I'm glad I found out about this Special Apartment Program in time, I'm telling you," says Garner, who recently moved into a renovated apartment on Cedar Street SE.
"Being able to do for myself is helping me to recover from alcoholism. I have a feeling of accomplishing something and I have peace," says Garner, a U.S. Army veteran who pays his rent with the non-service-connected disability benefits he receives.
Garner has emphysema and spends 24 hours each day hooked up to an oxygen machine.
The apartment program was set up in 1977 to help former St. Elizabeths patients make a transition from the institution's psychiatric, drug and alcohol programs back into the "normal world." The health center's Office of Community Liaison and Public Education (OCLPE) operates the program in conjunction with the Area D Citizens Association, a volunteer group. The citizens association raises money, co-signs apartment leases, donates furniture, pays security deposits and takes full responsibility for rental payments in cases of emergency.
Lela Wenckoski, employed by the OCLPE to direct the program, screens prospective clients, finds suitable apartments, helps clients become familiar with neighborhood services and tries to motivate the former patients to become socially active again.She also helps them master basic skills, such as opening a bank account or going to the grocery store.
A lot of people say it's hard to find an affordable apartment in the District," Wenckoski says, "but for former patients of St. Elizabeths Hospital it's almost impossible . . . Most landlords are apt to reject their applications out of hand, believing that mental patients never recover from their illnesses."
In trying to persuade landlords to accept a discharged patient, Wenckoski uses a simple strategy: Explain the program right away, emphasizing that it is sponsored by people who live in the area and point out that "none of our clients has ever been evicted."
Wenckoski said that even though she has found a few apartment managers who have been unusually willing to accept patients, she feels it would contradict the program's goal if she clustered people into just one apartment complex. "We don't want to create mini-institutions," she said. "The program's philosophy is to get (the former patients) into the mainstream as much as possible."
Wenckoski explains: "The push for deinstitutionalization of mental patients began in the 1950s with the creation and use of anti-psychotic drugs. Then came foster homes and group homes (now called community residence facilities) in the 1960s." Until the advent of the apartment program, however, she said, "patients could not completely experience the joy of self-reliance and freedom that comes from making their own decisions and living completely on their own."
Next to the problem of uncooperative landlords, the primary factor limiting the program's effectiveness is lack of money and furniture. Butween 15 and 25 patients are usually on the waiting list for an apartment.
But, with an average of $500 in the citizens association's treasury, "you really can't do much," says Helen Roundtree, one of the association's approximately 40 members. "Once you pay a couple of security deposits, there isn't much left. We just dread the possibility of more than one emergency occurring at the same time. That would put us in a real jam.
"We would welcome government funding and more donations of money and furniture, but we haven't been able to get either yet," she says.
Since the program began, it has helped 22 discharged patients, two of them with small families, find apartments in Anacostia and other parts of Southeast Washington, where Area D is located.
Ursula McGivern, 72, and Myrtle Shipp, 79, have spent a combined total of 40 years under the care of St. Elizabeths, receiving treatment for schizophrenia and other mental disorders, according to OCLPE records. They had recovered a number of years ago, but never left the foster home to which they were sent by the hospital because they had nowhere else to go. All their attempts to secure an apartment failed because they lacked jobs and credit references and carried the stigma of having been patients at St. Elizabeths.
McGivern and Shipp say they probably would still be in the foster home if it weren't for the apartment program.
In 1978, McGivern and Shipp were among the first people aided by the program. The two women, both of whom receive disability social security checks, became good friends in the foster home and now live in a fully-furnished, homey little two-bedroom apartment on Third Street SE. "We think it's just wonderful; we like our little doll house," says McGivern, who attended Trinity College many years ago, then married and had four children, two of whom were once patients at St. Elizabeths.
Shipp, who used to work as a photograph finisher, says that it was a difficult task learning to live independently of the nurses, house cleaners and cooks who used to care for them at the foster home. But, "We're glad to be back in the rigmarole of everyday life," McGivern says, smiling.