Payback Politics

People in need pay the price for Rudy's revenge

For Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, revenge is apparently a form of therapy. His tirade last week against a Brooklyn psychiatric clinic— prompted by rage that the City Council had overridden his veto on a homeless shelter bill— seems to have been an elixir for the mayor. But it is also a sickening twist on an old adage: One man's cure is another man's poison.

Irate for months over council efforts to regulate and oversee his Department of Homeless Services, Giuliani vented his anger by ordering his staff to begin the eviction process for 500 mentally ill patients who use a state-run outpatient psychiatric clinic in Cobble Hill, located in the district of Stephen DiBrienza, the councilmember who sponsored the shelter bill. Making the bogus claim that the bill would require the city to build several dozen shelters, Giuliani announced that the five-story, city-owned building at 250 Baltic Street would be the first.

"It would really be a shame, because where else would I go?" asked John Tripi, a 37-year-old Park Slope man who comes to the South Beach Psychiatric Clinic (SBPC) on Baltic Street five days a week for counseling, music therapy, and sessions with his psychiatrist. Tripi says his mother first brought him to the clinic after he suffered a nervous breakdown a dozen years ago. "The mayor's a very strict man," says Tripi, "but this problem is between him and the City Council, not the patients here." A 19-year-old SBPC client who gave her name only as Havansi said she has sympathy for the homeless. "But we need this place here," says Havansi, who first came to SBPC only two weeks ago for medication, counseling, and therapy that includes sewing classes. "They teach us how to live in the real world."

The mayor's antics have added to that curriculum a lesson in bald politics and bad behavior. To retaliate against a legislative body that dared exercise its will on how the city cares for more than 10,000 homeless men, women, and children, the mayor decided to disrupt a program that works unusually well in order to build something that is arguably not needed.

When the target of Giuliani's wrath became clear, it was obvious that the bomb he had launched was not a smart one: collateral damage would be done not only to the clients of SBPC and its several arms (including a city-backed peer support group that works with mentally ill adults throughout Brooklyn), but also to the children who attend a nonprofit center called Families First, housed in the basement and first floor of 250 Baltic Street. And although not on the mayor's eviction list, the move also spells profound disruption for a community board and a senior citizens' group that serves 75 elderly people a week, both of which have offices in the building.

"Maybe he didn't realize what social services were housed here," says Families First director Linda Blyer, trying to make sense of the eviction notice she received— twice— last week. "It sure doesn't make him look good."

The mayor's press office referred questions to Department of Homeless Services spokesperson Susan Wiviott, who declined to answer questions. On January 6, the City Council is expected to adopt an amendment stipulating that no existing 200-plus-bed shelter will have to shut or scale back; on January 7, tenants of 250 Baltic Street will meet with local leaders to discuss their options.

The main concern is what the mayor's dictate means for the 500 adults who rely each week on the psychiatric clinic, which has been located in the old city health department building for at least two decades. SBPC, an outpatient clinic affiliated with an inpatient facility on Staten Island, offers social workers, psychiatrists, peer groups, and various therapies to chronically mentally ill indigent New Yorkers.

"This isn't just a counseling center," says state assemblymember Jim Brennan, whose district includes the Baltic Street site and who chairs the assembly's committee on mental health. "You have to be seriously and persistently mentally ill" to use SBPC's services. "Many of these people have been institutionalized, some for years, and this is their last resort."

A few hours spent talking to SBPC clients on a bitter winter morning last week shows just who the victims of Giuliani's revenge are: a middle-aged retired school teacher who is regularly debilitated by depression; a 36-year-old Bed-Stuy woman whose mania turns talents like drawing and writing poetry into bizarre stunts like impersonating Florida Evans from television's Good Times one moment to doing a ghastly re-creation of Linda Blair's voice in The Exorcist the next; a 70-year-old former Greyhound phone operator who came to the clinic after he was released from a three-month psychiatric-hospital stay eight years ago and who can only explain his troubles by saying, "I don't know; I just got sick"; a 46-year-old man whose bright eyes peer out from thick lenses and who says he has just one question for the mayor: "What's the big idea here?"

"It would create a real hardship for us getting treatment, and it's a revenge on the patients more than anyone else," says the man, who has been coming to the clinic every weekday since 1994 and who asked not to be identified. "We'll be the ones who really pay."

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