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Advocate calls Las Vegas a ‘mental health ghetto’

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal 

Second Of Three Parts

Rep. Deborah Armstrong, a former head of the state Department of Aging and Long-Term Services, says she wouldn’t let a dog live in some of the boarding homes she has seen catering to people with mental illness.

Shela Silverman, director of the nonprofit Mental Health Association of New Mexico, says Las Vegas, N.M. – site of the state’s only public psychiatric hospital – has become a “mental health ghetto.”

Others say the community has become a dumping ground for the mentally ill.

“We can’t stick our heads in the sand,” Armstrong said this summer at a legislative committee hearing on boarding homes and possible regulation of them by the state.

The state mental hospital, formally known as the Behavioral Health Institute, discharges about 200 patients each year into Las Vegas and surrounding San Miguel County. Many have nowhere to go, still require medications and end up in boarding homes, spending a large chunk of their $750 in monthly Social Security disability benefits on room and meals.

The man from the photo above clutches a nearly empty bottle of vodka that he had been drinking from while seated at a bench along Grande Avenue in Las Vegas, N.M. (Eddie Moore/AlbuquerqueJournal)

The man from the photo above clutches a nearly empty bottle of vodka that he had been drinking from while seated at a bench along Grande Avenue in Las Vegas, N.M. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A Journal investigation found that residents of some boarding homes in Las Vegas live in crowded conditions and may go hungry because of inadequate meals provided by operators. There have also been reports of verbal and physical abuse, and financial exploitation of residents by operators, as well as violence and drug abuse by residents.

Two men released from the psychiatric hospital, which is run by the state Health Department, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2013 at a boarding home while paying a total of $1,100 a month to live in a backyard shed without plumbing.

The director and deputy director of the Health Department’s Behavioral Health Services Division also raised concerns about boarding homes in a memo to the secretary of the Health Department in 2014. They wrote:

“The lack of affordable and safe housing for persons with severe mental illness is a significant challenge in New Mexico as well as other states. … Board and Care Homes can have serious challenges which can include building safety code violations; public health and cleanliness issues; lack of privacy and dignity for residents; nutritionally deficient meals, and overcrowded conditions.

“Many individuals can become dependent in a Board and Care home and can stay 10 years or more without ever acquiring the skills necessary to become independent.”

Lack of care

Despite concerns from within and outside the Health Department about conditions in boarding homes both in Las Vegas and statewide, the agency says it doesn’t have the legal authority to adopt new boarding home regulations, although there are those who disagree with that position.

Las Vegas Fire Chief Phillip Mares says he supports state regulations, which could spell out requirements for such things as smoke detectors, fire evacuation plans and fire extinguishers. His fear is that a boarding home resident could die in a fire.

“There is a lot of blame to go around if something happens,” Mares says.

Chris Ruge, a nurse practitioner with El Centro Family Health in Las Vegas, helps provide care for Medicaid recipients with mental illness and other serious health issues. As part of his work, he visits clients in boarding homes.

“They (residents) are totally at the mercy of the boarding home operators,” Ruge says. “It’s scary that the people at most risk have the least amount of oversight to protect them.”

Ruge says some residents are victims of neglect because home operators don’t understand their medical needs. Also, he says, there is nothing to compel operators to act on the medical needs of residents, such as providing transportation for their health care visits.

“I think people that were sick ended up dying,” Ruge says. “What the state is saying through a lack of oversight is this isn’t a concern to us.”

Compassion or profit?

Some of the patients discharged from the Behavioral Health Institute into Las Vegas and surrounding San Miguel County are from the area, but others are unable or unwilling to return to their hometowns.

Many of the discharged patients spend their days walking the streets. They can be difficult to deal with because of their mental health problems, and some beg for money, food or cigarettes.

Like others in this community, Charlie Sandoval, owner of Charlie’s Spic & Span bakery and cafe, describes Las Vegas as tolerant and compassionate when it comes to people with mental illness.

Charlie Sandoval, owner of Charlie's Spic and Span in Las Vegas: (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Charlie Sandoval, owner of Charlie’s Spic and Span in Las Vegas: (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I have a few that come in, and I give them coffee and a burrito,” Sandoval says. “We deal with them every day. I think everybody in the community is used to it. The state is lucky that it has someone to take care of them.”

Las Vegas Mayor Tonita Gurule-Giron declined to be interviewed for this story.

Silverman, whose nonprofit helps people transition from the Behavioral Health Institute to independent living, says the community is tolerant of people with mental illness, because it makes a lot of money off them. Many patients discharged from the psychiatric hospital are trapped in boarding homes because the homes take nearly all their income, including Social Security disability payments, she says.

“How are you going to get out?” Silverman asks. “They stay there for 30 years. They could have bought a home.”

Billy Rogers, director of Gonzales Funerals & Cremations in Las Vegas, says he believes the community’s compassion for people with mental illness outweighs the negatives.

Benjamin Baca of Las Vegas, N.M., is accused of raping women at this cemetery in Las Vegas after they had been released from the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Benjamin Baca of Las Vegas, N.M., is accused of raping women at this cemetery in Las Vegas after they had been released from the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Those negatives include not only the conditions of some boarding homes, but the case of Benjamin Baca, 75, of Las Vegas, who is awaiting trial on charges that he raped three women who moved into boarding homes after release from the Behavioral Health Institute.

Baca, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of luring the women into his truck or to his home with promises of cigarettes and sodas, then forcing them to engage in sex.

“It’s a pattern of activity that targets the helpless,” says state Deputy District Attorney James Grayson in Las Vegas, who is prosecuting the case.

State deputy district attorney James Grayson (Tom Cole/Albuquerque Journal)

State deputy district attorney James Grayson (Tom Cole/Albuquerque Journal)

Although no one else has been charged in connection with the case, there have been allegations that Baca supplied women with mental illness to other men.

“It seems like a bigger problem than just one person,” Grayson says.

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