Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno can't wait to take their love outside the walls of an adult home on Coney Island. But for now, they have to wait.

Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Emily Berl
olange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno

When Solange Lambert started dating Cosmo Salerno, they scandalized the neighbors. She is now 29, the youngest person in their building, and he is nearly twice her age. Some of the older women had especially unkind things to say about the relationship. "They told Cosmo he was robbing the cradle," Solange recalls, still sounding a little hurt, though all of this happened more than four years ago. "And they called me a tramp."

But their age difference isn't the unlikeliest part of their love story. The two met at Surf Manor, an adult-care home where they, along with most of the other 200 residents, struggle with mental illness: Solange has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Cosmo with major depression and anxiety. They fell in love when she first arrived, and they've shared a room for the past three years, one of the few couples living together at the Coney Island home. "We say that's the only good thing about Surf Manor," Solange says, smiling a little. "That we found each other."

"I'd be pretty miserable here without her," Cosmo agrees, looking over at Solange, who beams back at him. Then she glances around the small, dim bedroom they share, and sighs. "We just want to be happy together in a more normal life," she says. "This isn't normal."

Emily Berl
Love in bloom: Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno
Emily Berl
Love in bloom: Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno

Solange is tall, round, and pale. On an overcast day in late February, she sits on an unmade bed with faded green sheets, holding hands with Cosmo, who is heavyset with a graying beard and sad brown eyes. The pair has been waiting for what feels like forever to leave Surf Manor and move into a state-subsidized apartment—as a controversial Federal District Court legal opinion last year supposedly gave them and other mentally ill people in homes like Surf Manor the right to do. But when you're both mentally ill, starting a new life together is far from simple.

Since 2003, they have been in the middle of a huge legal battle between New York State, which supervises privately owned adult homes like Surf Manor, and advocates who say the adult-home system unfairly isolates the mentally ill from society, violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. In 2003, Disability Advocates, Inc. (DAI) brought suit against the state on behalf of New York City adult-home residents. The suit was decided in DAI's favor in 2010, but the state has appealed the decision. If the ruling is upheld, residents wouldn't be forced to move and the homes wouldn't be closed. But all current and future adult-home residents would have to be given the opportunity to move into what's called "supportive housing"—either their own apartments or much smaller group homes. To qualify for the housing, the ruling stated, residents have to meet only three criteria: They can't have severe dementia or require "a high level of skilled nursing" that supportive housing couldn't provide, or be thought likely to cause "imminent danger" to themselves or others. About 4,300 adult-home residents at 28 private facilities in the city stand to be affected by the final outcome.

As it moves forward, the lawsuit has raised a number of uncomfortable issues. Can institutionalized people, some of whom haven't had to take care of basic practical tasks in decades, realistically live independently again? Would a final ruling in favor of supportive housing flood areas of Brooklyn and Queens—where most of the adult homes are concentrated—with mentally ill people? Adult homes have often been criticized for being hellholes, but should they be emptied out? Would that have the same disastrous effect that some experts say was the result of deinstitutionalization of mental patients in the '60s? Would there be a new flood of people who can't cope on their own and wind up living on the streets, unmedicated and unstable? The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 20 to 25 percent of single adults who are already homeless suffer from "some form of severe and persistent mental illness."

As both the appeal and the larger debate continue, adult-home residents like Solange and Cosmo who want to try to make it on their own are living in limbo.

For now, their room at Surf Manor smells like hairspray and cigarettes. It's got two double beds and a banged-up wooden bureau crowded with her stuffed animals. Their long, narrow window looks out on the yard and a row of dark, leafless trees newly planted by the home. Cosmo spends most of his time in here, while Solange haunts the Coney Island Public Library branch virtually every hour that it's open. Surf Manor residents only have to let the staff know if they plan to be away for longer than 24 hours, and take their medications with them so they don't miss a dose; otherwise, they're free to come and go as they wish. "I take out like five books a day," Solange says. She opens a dresser drawer and starts pulling out stacks of books she has just borrowed, piling them on the bed: Stephen King, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. She looks up from the stack in front of her. "Reading is my escape."

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