She sat alone at a table in the corner of the room at the J. B. Johnson Nursing Home in Northwest Washington. Two dozen very old men and women shared the same room. Some sat with their heads bowed. Others, with blank expressions, seemed ready to slide from their seats onto the clean tile floor. A radio was playing a song by Stevie Nicks that said: "You can talk to me." But no one was talking.
Mary Bailey sat there, with a cumbersome helmet on her head to prevent injuries, and looked at the faces of two people she had not seen for nearly a year. She has been in the nursing home for that long, but we were her first visitors. Her eyes drifted past me without recognition. But she remembered Erna Steinbruck, director of the women's shelter that Mary once called home. That was when Mary last saw Erna, when she was taken -- against her will -- first to D.C. General Hospital and then to St. Elizabeths.
I have written about Mary before, first when she was the homeless woman I passed every day on the street. But by Inaugural Day a year ago -- a day so cold that outdoor ceremonies were cancelled -- she had disappeared.
Mary's past year has been typical of a homeless person who can no longer take care of herself. Mary, who can no longer walk without difficulty, has Huntington's disease, an illness that destroys the neurological system. Unless Erna Steinbruck had interceded, Mary would have died on the streets.
I write about Mary now as a person who, unable to acknowledge the severity of her illness, would rather have remained on the streets. Laws decree that a homeless person such as Mary cannot be held indefinitely without an involuntary commitment hearing before the D.C. Superior Court's three-member Mental Health Commission. A lawyer from the city's public defender service argued Mary's desire to be left alone. A staff psychiatrist argued Mary's need for in-patient medical care. The commission decided that Mary was a danger to herself, although she wanted to return to the streets.
Mary is also a troubling example of what happens at the end of the line, of the less-than-ideal places where such homeless people are kept, often for the rest of their lives. It is an unbelievably lonely existence.
Mary grinned like a child when she recognized Erna and stuffed the gift of a large chocolate bar into her mouth.
Mary's memory is fading. She has lost a lot of weight. She cannot utter words as well as she used to. But she repeatedly asked Erna: "Don't you want me to go with you? I'm so glad to see you. I want to go back with you."
Nursing homes in the District have come under increasing scrutiny. The Johnson nursing home has had its share of attention. In 1983, a schizophrenic resident at the nursing home suffered second-degree burns from a bath in scalding water. In 1984, it was cited for numerous deficiencies, including cockroach infestation, supply shortages and insufficient sanitation.
At the time of our visit, it seemed clean; the smell of antiseptic was in the air. But there seemed to be too few staff members. One old woman swayed into the open room, yet no one offered to take her hand and guide her to a seat.
Mary sits and sometimes remembers her life as a woman on the streets when she could go wherever she wished with all her belongings in two shopping bags and with socks filled with the money people gave her. But does she remember the nights on which she nearly froze to death and the fact that, when she was taken to the hospital, she could not even walk?
She no longer has her freedom, but she is alive and receiving care.
"Listen, it's a lot better than living on the streets," Erna said.
Yes, it is.