Rickey Watkins, a mental health patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital, had listened intently for almost two hours yesterday while mayoral candidates answered questions from the District's mental health care providers.
Watkins applauded after D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D) recited several bills he had sponsored concerning mental health care.
Watkins cheered when Sharon Pratt Dixon described the administration of the Commission on Mental Health Services as "bloated."
He thrust his fist in the air in affirmation when council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) pledged to hold up development on the west campus at St. Elizabeths.
And he booed when it was announced that the staff of council member John Ray (D-At Large) had suggested that council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) sit in for Ray.
Finally, when it came time for the clients of the city's mental health care system to question the candidates, Watkins stood up from his seat in the front row and asked something that was on the minds of many. "We have seen Mayor Barry rebuild downtown, but we still see boarded-up city-owned housing. How soon will each of you guarantee that the boards will come off of city-owned properties?"
The answers were variations of "immediately after I am elected."
The hope for many mentally ill people is to be able to live on their own. "If there is no affordable housing available, there is no motivation to work to get well," said Pamela England, a former patient at St. Elizabeths who now lives by herself.
When the forum ended, the standing-room-only crowd in the D.C. Council Chamber filed out, many wearing campaign buttons. All of the current or former clients from St. Elizabeths who attended wore buttons emblazoned with two words -- "I Vote" -- that they wanted to make sure the candidates saw.
The forum was sponsored by the Mental Health Association of the District of Columbia and more than two dozen groups representing patients, employees and agencies that provide services for the mentally ill. Organizers said it was one of the rare occasions for which the various groups concerned about mental health care -- groups that sometimes disagree on methods and battle for money -- had come together.
The two-hour session was dominated by two issues. People with mental illness asked most about how the city could provide more affordable housing. And mental health care providers asked for support to block a plan to reorganize the network of mental health care services. Under that plan, the 20-plus providers of care that run community homes and provide job training and support services would be replaced by four major agencies, one in each region served by the Commission on Mental Health Services.
Robert Washington, the mental health services commissioner, said the plan would make the providers more accountable. Many of the providers said it would weaken the uniqueness of individual agencies.
The forum was in part a demonstration of the strength of the mental health constituency. Judith Johnson, executive director of the Green Door, an agency that provides housing, training and other services for mentally ill people, pointed to the more than 300 people who filled the council chambers and told the candidates, "Most of the people in the room are voters. And, yes, they are registered."
Forum organizers said invitations were extended to all mayoral candidates. Clarke, Dixon, Jarvis and Ray accepted. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) did not attend. And former D.C. police chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., who is seeking the Republican nomination, said he would prefer a private meeting with the groups.
Ray did attend the forum, though he arrived more than an hour late.
When the candidates had finished, Watkins decided that one had won his vote. But the issue had nothing to do with mental health.
"I was most impressed by Dixon," said Watkins, 33, a 12-year member of the Green Door and a theater arts major at the University of the District of Columbia. "I liked what she said about bringing the record and movie industry to D.C."