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.

Even Solange, who is frankly miserable in the home, admits that Surf Manor was helpful for her at one time. "I would say it helped me when I came here, because it's a protected environment," she says. "Like when you get here, if you have a lot of mental-health issues, you feel more safe than just being out on your own." But that time is past for her now, she says. "I feel very well, for the past four years. I really feel I don't need to be here."

'An Epidemic of Constipation'

Surf Manor is in a rundown section of Coney Island a few blocks west of the Boardwalk, on a block of Surf Avenue mainly populated by housing projects, bodegas, and the odd storefront church. The home is a squat four-story building surrounded by a low chain-link fence, enclosing a yard filled with scrubby yellow-gray grass and seeded with cigarette butts. Inside, it feels like an odd mixture of a hospital and a shabby hotel—a lobby filled with mismatched chairs and a TV that's always on, a wood-paneled cafeteria with a low ceiling, white-tiled hallways, and sea-foam-green elevators that are constantly breaking down. Most times of day, there are residents standing outside the front door or in the parking lot out back, chain-smoking and watching the traffic pass by.

The front yard, where the staff and residents bustle around one another, is also the prime spot to observe Surf Manor's curious demographics. As with most other adult homes in the city, Surf Manor's operator, Robert Lichtschein—who opened it in 1978—and virtually his entire administrative staff are Orthodox Jewish men. Meanwhile, the aides, "chambermaids" (Surf Manor parlance for housekeepers), and porters are all black or Latina, and predominantly women.

No one seems sure why Orthodox Jewish families run a high percentage of New York City's adult homes, but Jeffrey Sherrin, Surf Manor's attorney, has a few ideas. "They're a population that has, first, traditionally been in health care and social services, and, second, are very community-minded, charitable-minded," he says. "One of the mis-impressions you get is that this is just a group of evil, greedy, money-mongering people. It's just not the case. There's not big money to be made in adult homes."

In 1990, the last time the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities (CQC) studied the revenues of adult homes, they found that New York facilities made an average profit of $2.20 per day for each resident they housed. Only 15 percent of the homes reported losses on their expenditure reports.

Residents have plenty of gripes, and many want to move out. "Many residents will not want to move out, and many will. Neither will necessarily be making the right decision," Lichtschein's son Rafael and the home's head administrator, Josh Teller, wrote to the Voice in response to written questions. "The fear we have is that they will become victims of overstated promises and an aggressively marketed and poorly planned social experiment."

The two strongly defended the operation of the home and contended that "a great many [residents] cannot live independently, if living independently means not having someone available at all times to deal with their problems."

They added, "If residents want to move out, and can do so, we help where we can. Many of those expressions are very unrealistic, not surprising when coming from the disabled population we serve."

Years ago, there weren't enough psychiatric clinics and halfway houses to catch the people emptied from the big asylums. Soon, privately run adult homes began stepping in to fill the void. But by the early '90s, the homes were being accused of many of the same failings as the asylums they replaced: understaffing, poorly qualified workers, and filthy living conditions. A 2002 series in the Times found that many of the homes were little more than "psychiatric flophouses" where residents were being exploited for their Medicare money.

Sherrin strongly criticizes that ballyhooed Times series. "That was the start of the public-relations nightmare for adult homes," he says. "But if you looked carefully at those articles, they weren't describing current conditions anywhere. The inspection reports cited, the pictures taken, the incidents alleged—many of which had been disproved, in one form or another—they were, generally speaking, old. They just weren't representative of where things stood."

The state disagreed. After a subsequent crackdown, Surf Manor and eight other homes were cited by the DOH for serious health and safety violations, including exposed wiring, dirty facilities, and "improper medication management."

The 2010 DOH inspection reports for Surf Manor revealed a number of ongoing issues. Inspectors found in June that at least 30 residents were taking medications at the wrong dosage or for much longer than the period of time for which they had been prescribed, and that at least two residents had been improperly admitted to the home even though they both had serious schizoaffective disorder, which the staff is not qualified to handle. Residents smoking in their rooms, blocked vents, leaky faucets, holes in the walls, peeling paint, mold, "excessive clutter"—the overall picture the reports provide isn't of malicious neglect, but of institution-wide disorganization and decay.

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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.

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!

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.

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

Solange
Solange

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

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

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.

JK
JK

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

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!!!

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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