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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15 comments
Succlo
Succlo

These people need to get a job and move on from their personal problems. It's too easy to drug oneself and sit in a flophouse on SSI.

Solange
Solange like.author.displayName 1 Like

My name is Solange Lambert and this article was about my boyfriend Cosmoand myself. Your comments are extremely hurtful. You say we should get a joband move on with our lives. You have no idea how hard this is to do with no oneto help us in our lives. We both have no family and support.You cant talk about other peoples lives unless you have walked inthere shoes. Also someone who was abused in every way possible from the agesof two to seventeen like myself and just move on.Try living my life for 1 day and see how it feels

Kristin Wolke
Kristin Wolke

Solange - I just wanted to say that I think you + Cosmo are brave to have someone write a story about your lives... Have you looked into the federal program HPRP (Homelessness Prevention Rapid Rehousing)? I work at the Rescue Mission upstate but still have contacts in the Brooklyn area (I moved up here 3 years ago). Please feel free to contact me via facebook; I may have some info that you could use to get out of that place. The HPRP is a federal program that (once you find an apartment + show that you can afford it after they help you) will pay for your security deposit and up to 3 months rent in advance to your landlord. That will give you and Cosmo additional time to save a little nest egg for future rent, etc. The contact person in NYC is the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, City of NY. Her name is Eileen Lynch and her email is elynch@dhs.nyc.gov (212-361-7957). I hope this helps you to get out of that "adult home" ASAP. best wishes!!!

Lakotawinter
Lakotawinter

OFF OUR MEDS ON PARK AVENUE (True Story) Walked past a tall homeless man near Park Avenue one afternoon. Barefoot, hair like a porcupine, three inches of dirt on clothes. Took a closer look. He was yelling into his CELL PHONE! I stopped a few feet away in shock. HE has a CELL PHONE?! "Oh, hell yeah. Haven't seen my brother in three years. Right. Still lives in the Bronx. Yeah. What do I care about that?" He paced up and down yelling into the phone to the person on the other line. As I passed him I looked carefully at the cell phone. Put my hand over my mouth so he wouldn't see me laugh. It was a hair brush! Damn. It was a life lesson for me. Don't judge people by the way they appear! He was really hurting and obviously alone and scared. I was pissed 'cause he had a cell phone! He turned the mirror on me and made me look at myself. I love NYC! If you stay here long enough you can get a Masters in Life!

Spook
Spook

Why is it that people love New York for shit like this? A Masters in Life? Give me a f'en break. You get insights from mentally ill people on the streets so you love New York?WTF?

Boston2lalaland
Boston2lalaland

We never really do know a persons road. Thanks for sharing this. More so, thank you for having the compassion

Lucy
Lucy

Wow! What a compelling angle on the situation of adult homes. It's hard to consider what's best for the patient while also considering the humanity of the issue. Very illuminating piece.

JK
JK

Holy crap, are these people insane?!??!

Missboo42
Missboo42

True love is so hard to come by these days, it is refreshing to read a story about two people who love each other. I hate the term 'mental illness.' We are all mentally ill to one degree or another. Please don't reply, "Speak for yourself!" The people who think there is nothing wrong with them are the people who have the most problems in life. I do not know one person here in NYC who isn't fighting some sort of emotional trauma on a daily basis. 99% of them would be so much happier with someone in their life. Half their problem is not having someone to share things with. We can go to the Moon (?), build skyscrapers through the clouds, and create the Internet, but we haven't a clue how to make people better without tons of meds. There has to be a cure. If you calculated on a yearly basis how much money was spent on disability and mental health in this country and eliminated 80% of it, we wouldn't have the financial woes we currently suffer from. 'Mental illness' is a crutch for a lot of people. I've seen it my entire adult life. Come back to this couple 5 years from now and give us an update.

JK
JK

It appears you are getting your wish to severely cut federal spending on the mentally ill (http://www.nami.org/Template.c... however, it's not clear to me that cutting some single-digit number of billions is going to cure the financial woes we currently suffer from.

Furthermore, speak for yourself.

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

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

As entertaining as is your "the" mentally ill, it is inaccurate, imprecise. Please say what you mean, those words do not do it.

Harold A. Maiokhmaio@earthlink.net

JK
JK

I didn't find that entertaining at all, you insensitive clod!

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

"The" mentally ill is not entertaining, no resepectable journalist ought entertain it. As I wrote: "it is inaccurate, imprecise. Please say what you mean, those words do not do it."

Harold

HaroldAMaio
HaroldAMaio

Writers and editors are entertained by the form, or they wouuld not employ it, I am not.

JK
JK

You called it entertaining. I feel like you've stepped over a line here.

 
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