I am the last barrier between my sister and New York
My sister and I shared a room when we were kids, but it takes me a minute to recognize the thin, disheveled woman with gray hair I see outside the window. Then I see her wary, puzzled expression, and realize that she no longer recognizes me. She’s less than 10 feet away and I can’t cross the decades and find the little sister I knew, the beautiful, hilarious, talented person she once was. The nurse standing next to her rushes out of the room; he tells me that my crying is “not helping”, that I am confusing and worrying my sister. I step away from the window so she can’t see me anymore.
This is the reality of caring for a family member with mental illness in America. I am the last barrier between my sister and homelessness. And I need help. If my sister had cancer, Parkinson’s disease or diabetes, she could get treatment. But because she is mentally ill, she is trapped in a reality-distorting field from which she cannot escape without the medication she perversely refuses.
From her texts to me, I know that she wants her life back, wants her cooperative back, the chance to work again as an artist. And I know from his previous hospitalizations that his mental health is improving with medication, and that there are now long-acting antipsychotics available as injections, eliminating the need for daily compliance.
My sister has a generous federal disability benefit, health and supplemental insurance, and a family that cares about her. As a guardian, I pay her expenses from her monthly allowance and transfer money daily to the debit card she carries as her only ID. But how can I keep my sister safe and housed if I can’t access the care she needs?
How can I go beyond what Kendra’s Law is designed to accomplish and how it is interpreted by those authorized to apply it? Will the mayor’s new directive increase my chances of getting his court-ordered outpatient treatment? It is no longer a mystery to me that the streets of New York and Los Angeles and too many other American cities are home to thousands of mentally ill homeless people. They have nowhere to go.
I leave the hospital in despair. I spend the rest of my time in New York emptying the apartment in the private house where my sister had lived. I wear a KF94 mask and latex gloves to sort his clothes, the trash. I am arranging care for the stray cat she tried to keep as a pet and attempted to feed cans of tuna but instead fed the mice infesting the room. I contact an exterminator, a sanitation company, a plumber and a painter to clean, decontaminate and repair the apartment.
And I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the owner of the house who tolerated my sister and her illness with otherworldly compassion. She made not only my sister’s life bearable, but also mine. As grateful as I am to it, it is not a substitute for adequate state-funded care. Housing the mentally ill will not be solved by the kindness of strangers, not when there are millions of people like my sister.
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