I wrote recently about a homeless woman whom I often saw on my way to and from work -- a sad, suffering woman who never begged but obviously longed for contact with other people. I have learned more about her. Her name is Mary Bailey, and she is worth a second look.
In New York City, Mayor Edward Koch has said the police force will remove homeless people from the streets and take them to municipal hospitals on bitterly cold days -- whether they want to get off the streets or not. D.C. Council member John Wilson has urged Mayor Barry to do the same here. But such a move should be studied in relation to people such as Mary Bailey.
Who takes responsibility for people who are helpless, homeless and clearly in need? What recourse is there if the person will not admit or is unable to grasp that he or she needs help? The law on involuntary commitment seems to be simple and straightforward, but it is not. One must prove a person is a danger to himself or others. A person who physically attacks others is a danger to others. A suicidal person is a danger to himself. Mary Bailey is neither, but she is in serious need and she does not understand that. She cannot walk without falling. She cannot control her arms and legs. Probably, she is slowly dying. She may now finally get all the help she needs.
Mary Bailey first came to the attention of homeless shelter volunteers here in October 1982. The Rev. John Steinbruck, chairman on the D.C. Commission of the Homeless, and his wife Erna, who helps run a shelter for homeless women, met her then. The illness that would gradually rob her of her balance and ability to walk was barely noticeable then. She spent her nights at the Luther Place Shelter on Vermont Avenue and many of her days at the Bethany Women's Center, where Erna Steinbruck worked.
By January 1984, Bailey's condition worsened. She fell frequently, and moved in jerks and spasms. She also became increasingly angry and frustrated. She would dump food on the floor and throw coffee cups. Convinced that she was exhibiting symptoms seen in others who had been diagnosed as having a serious neurological breakdown, the Steinbrucks arranged to have her tested at the Crisis Resolution Unit of D.C. General Hospital. On the day of the appointment, Bailey refused to go and stopped coming to the daytime shelter. She then stayed on the streets, returning to the Luther Place shelter only at night. The shelter coordinator there, Beth Borstad, said Bailey spent her nights alone, sitting on a toilet stool. It was, Bailey said, the only place where she could be alone.
After Bailey fell four times, injuring a foot badly enough to prevent her from walking and preventing her from even getting up for food, the Steinbrucks called D.C. General's Crisis Resolution unit again. This time Bailey went, against her wishes. From D.C. General, she was taken to St. Elizabeths hospital. The medical staff there have tentatively diagnosed that she has Huntington's disease. If that is true, she will be eligible for disability benefits. A full year after her problem became serious, Bailey is finally being cared for.
Mental hospitals have no authority to find people such as Mary Bailey and take them off the streets. They can hold a person no longer than seven days, barring an involuntary commitment order from the D.C. Superior Court's Mental Health Commission. Patients can sometimes sign an "AMA" (against medical advice) form and walk out in 48 hours.
With rules and laws and procedures as inflexible as these, the Mary Baileys of the streets remain on the streets. For now, she is being treated at St. Elizabeths hospital. If such a fate makes you cringe, remember she is in a warm place, with fresh clothes, hot food, medication and a competent medical staff. Remember that, too, when you read about the people who want St. Elizbeths closed.