A Ministry of Neglect
Armed with more than $4 million in city and state funds, one of Brooklyn's most prominent ministers pledged in 1991 to create a new home for the most vulnerable of the city's homeless, those with mental disabilities.
Pacific House, an 80-room facility constructed from a renovated Bedford Stuyvesant apartment house, would end the hopeless cycle of streets, shelters, and hospitals for its residents, said founder Reverend Clarence Norman Sr. Counseling, therapy, recreation, and training would steer them back into society.
But nine years later, state officials have ruled that the health and well-being of Pacific House's residents is best served by closing the institution.
The move follows a lengthy history of massive health and safety violations at the facility.
Records show that, starting in 1993, inspectors cited Pacific House for having cracked floor tiles, roach and rodent infestations, filthy bathrooms, and overflowing trash cans.
Although their building was filled with easily confused residents, administrators ignored state ordersfor six years in a rowto comply with a city law requiring at least one staff member to have a certificate of fire safety.
Inspectors also faulted how residents were evaluated and treated. Medications were often mismanaged and records frequently incomplete and sometimes contradictory. One resident was listed in a 1997 file as an active drug abuser whose adjustment to the supposedly drug-free home was "good."
In 1999, state inspectors found a complete lack of supervision, with residents "wandering aimlessly" into and out of the building.
Year after year, inspectors invoked ever harsher language to describe the facility, warning that it faced fines and license revocation if violations weren't fixed immediately.
But little changed and no fines were imposed. For three years running, records show, Reverend Norman failed to respond to the reports.
The order to close the facility didn't come until after a group of residents themselves sought legal help. Using their own cameras to record conditions, the residents helped attorneys file suit to compel Reverend Norman to clean and repair the building, or find someone who would.
Instead, the state Department of Health decided to shut it down.
All this month, vans have been removing residents and their slim belongings from the four-story building at 1140 Pacific Street, taking them to facilities as far away as the Rockaways. The move has left many fearful and confused. Others are bitter.
"I think now Pacific House should never have been built," said Igan Potts, 30, who lived there for seven years. "All it is, is a place to get cash out of the government."
Potts and other residents blamed staff indifference at Pacific House for contributing to the recent deaths of two women.
One of them, a woman in her sixties named Martha Curlett, suffering from diabetes and often incontinent, spent her days sitting in a nightgown on the house's crumbling steps, begging for change, they said.
"She'd be sitting there, in all kinds of weather, pissy wet, saying, 'Mommy . . . Poppy? Gotta quarter? Gotta cigarette?' " said resident Clara Taylor.
George Gitlitz, an organizer for the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled who visited the home regularly, said he recalled seeing Curlett "sitting with holes in her shoes" on the stoop shortly before Christmas.
"I gave her a dollar," he said. "I think she died a week or so later."
The state's independent Commission on the Quality of Care said it is investigating Curlett's death and that of Rhonda Tucker, who died last year.
James Frederick, Pacific House's current administrator, declined to comment specifically about the deaths. "A person is diabetic, they shouldn't eat those rich foods, soda. We can't control the residents," he said, leaning against a van parked in front of the building, where several residents had spent the past hour pacing back and forth on the stoop.
"This isn't a happy process for anybody," he said.
In a signed stipulation agreeing to close the facility, Norman, 70, blamed "insufficient cash flow" for the violations.
But the project's financial status is unclear. The program has never been audited, state officials said. There are also no recent financial statements to review because the nonprofit organization has failed to file required annual reports since 1995, according to the state attorney general.
But a steady flow of money went into the building. In addition to city and state loans of about $4.6 million, Pacific House collected $830 a month in rent from each resident's federal disability check.
Still, bills went unpaid. City officials say that since 1992 Reverend Norman has failed to make payments on a $2.3 million loan. State tax officials have filed more than $200,000 in liens against Pacific House for not paying payroll and other taxes. And federal tax authorities have placed a $68,000 lien against Reverend Norman personally, records show.
Myra Gibson served on a residents' council to improve conditions.
Whatever their source, Pacific House's problems were not caused by a lack of political clout. Reverend Norman, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, is the father of Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., the powerful chairman of the Kings County Democratic Committee.
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.
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.
"I said to him, 'I don't want to take you to court, but you all are robbing me. We need better treatment,' " Taylor said. She said Norman voiced sympathy but said he lacked funds to carry out major improvements.
Shortly after the meeting, Taylor and other residents contacted MFY Legal Services, a Manhattan organization that assists low-income New Yorkers. Attorneys visited the site and were shocked at what they found.
"There were pieces falling from the ceiling," said attorney Lisa Green. "There was no security, roaches and mice running rampant. Bathrooms were disgusting, such that no human being should have to live with."
"We considered this insitution to have some of the worst environmental conditions we've seen," said Jeanette Zelhof, MFY's managing attorney.
MFY filed suit in late 1998 on behalf of Taylor and five other residents. A few months later the lawyers won a judge's order to compel Reverend Norman to make repairs. Still, the facility balked. It was while the lawyers were threatening to seek a contempt judgment that the state commenced negotiations to close the facility.
Reverend Norman's agreement with the state calls for "appropriate placement" of residents in an adult home or nursing facility.
But according to Gitlitz and the attorneys from MFY, Pacific House is pressuring residents to leave immediately. "They were told that if they are not gone by June 30, they will be turning off the lights and the water. People are terrified," said Gitlitz.
State health department officials declined to comment about Pacific House's future once it is empty. But Assemblyman Norman said the decision has been made to turn the building over to the Albany-based Altamont Program, headed by Father Peter Young, who is a longtime chaplain of the state senate.
Young said the plan evolved from his earlier attempt to take over the existing program. "I was heartbroken we couldn't work it out there, but ultimately we felt we weren't equipped to run an adult home," he said. He is currently negotiating with Reverend Norman to acquire the property, although he said he didn't know how much his organization would pay for it.
But Young said that the state's Dormitory Authority has already given him a list of needed repairs to the building and that the Altamont Program is slated to receive at least $400,000 in state money for the renovation.
Meanwhile, the closing of Pacific House, despite its problems, is wrenching to many residents. Michael Virgo, 36, a somber man who has spent four years there, said he would rather stay where he is now.
"The state came so many times here and gave them warnings. Still, nothing changed. They could've fixed the place up, gotten good staff. Now we all have to leave. It's not the residents' faults. I wished I could stay and make it better here."
photographs by Brian Finke
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