By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Norman Jr. is also chairman of the assembly's Task Force on Homelessness, but said he played no role with Pacific House.
"Not my program, not my district, not me. I went to the groundbreaking, that was it," he said. His sole involvement, the assemblyman said, was to ask his law partner, Ravi Batra, to represent Reverend Norman in talks with state officials. Reverend Norman failed to return numerous calls.
Gitlitz, whose group aids residents at dozens of adult homes, described Pacific House as "a disaster." At a meeting of the state's Residential Advisory Committee, he asked about enforcement there. "An official told me, 'It's politics with a capital P,' " said Gitlitz.
But state health officials insisted that political influence never affected how they monitored Pacific House. "We would never place political connections over the health and safety of the residents," said Rob Kenny, a state health department spokesman.
Kenny said that the state's Department of Social Services began proceedings in 1996 to revoke Pacific House's license. But that was put on hold after an Albany-based drug detox group called the Altamont Program sought in 1998 to take over the home's management.
In September 1999, however, Altamont changed its mind, citing the home's poor condition. A devastating 1999 inspection of Pacific House "was the last straw," Kenny said. Shortly thereafter, state officials began lengthy negotiations with Reverend Norman, ultimately reaching an agreement on May 25. The deal calls for Pacific House to close its doors by July 25.
"The bottom line here is these residents need to be safe. We have been on top of the situation and are moving with appropriate speed," said Kenny.
But the picture that emerges from state records and interviews with residents and lawyers is of a facility filled with frail individuals spiraling into a steady, slow-motion collapse.
Instead of pulling its residents out of a mire of despair and poverty, it was Pacific House itself that descended into disrepair and disorder.
One former state official, who declined to be named, said it was clear early on that Pacific House was headed for trouble. "Reverend Norman really didn't have the depth of organization to handle it," he said.
Norman apparently realized it as well. In 1995, he approached Dr. Peter Campanelli, head of the Institute for Community Living, and asked him to take over Pacific House.
"He was having operational and financial difficulties and honestly I think he realized he needed someone else to do it," said Campanelli, who said bureaucratic snags and the home's financial woes prevented him from taking over.
The keenest observers of the breakdown at Pacific House may have been a handful of residents who, despite their own admitted disabilities, were quick to spot problems.
Igan Potts arrived at Pacific House in February 1993 after spending two years bouncing in and out of shelters and hospital mental wards. At first he was elated to be admitted to the program.
"Everything was sweet and serene," he said. But he soon encountered drugs, prostitution, and theft. When he reported one resident's chronic drug use to an administrator he was bluntly rebuffed. "She said: 'What are you, a snitch?' "
In an effort to learn his rights as a resident, he traveled to local libraries. "I was looking for organizations that could help better the house," he said. Fearful that staff would take away his notes and booklets if they knew what he was doing, he "covered his tracks" by hiding them in art books he checked out of the library.
Clara Taylor also confronted the administration over conditions. Taylor, 49, had been homeless for 10 years when she arrived at Pacific House in the summer of 1997.
"I applied and they got me in," she said. "It seemed like my God had guided me there."
But Taylor said her hopes were dashed when she saw the home's dirty bathrooms. "They were always filthy, clogged up, no toilet paper, no towels. There were roaches and mouses running through the halls," she said.
The promised recreation, she said, turned out to be occasional group trips to Manhattan to sit in the studio audience for TV shows like Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake. "And a lot of bingo. All the time, bingo," said Taylor.
Several residents were severely disturbed, Taylor said, often wandering about covered in their own excrement. Staff did nothing, she claimed.
"Those people weren't supposed to be there," said Taylor. "But they wouldn't move them out because they didn't want to lose their [rent payments]," she said.
Myra Gibson, 38, who has lived at Pacific House for eight years, said she rarely saw Reverend Norman there. When he did show up one day, she decided to confront him. "I told him, 'You're not paying your bills, but you're taking our money,' " she said. "He just laughed."
At one point, Gibson, Taylor, Potts, and other residents who became active in a council that Gitlitz helped form circulated a petition calling on Reverend Norman to improve conditions. Fifty-eight people signed it, and Norman agreed to attend his first-ever meeting with residents.