By Arthur Z. Schwartz
In mid-December I got a worried phone call from George Capsis. An older woman (who I will call Fran for purposes of this article) had found her way to George’s apartment, holding a clipping from WestView about another older woman who George had referred to me with a landlord problem. She was an immigrant from Korea, but had lived in her current apartment for 17 years. Her English was not good, though she understands everything. She was only 75 years old. George told me: “she needs your help right away. Her landlord has been suing her for the last seven years and she is afraid that she is on the verge of getting evicted.” I agreed to see her a few days later.
Fran arrived with someone from a Korean-American social services agency, and bags full of Korean pastries and pistachios. She had neatly arranged scores of pages of documents to help me understand her case. She was neat, looked healthy, and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the legal issues she had been fighting with the landlord about for seven years. Those issues involved a rent increase, and the failure of SCRIE (a benefit which helps rent control and rent stabilized tenants over 65 avoid rent increases, i.e., the City pays the rent increase) to keep up with the increase. The landlord said she owed money, accumulating at a rate of $200 per month, a total now exceeding $5500. The landlord brought a non-payment eviction action, which had dragged on for years. Fran had a Legal Services lawyer; actually she had been through several. Then one day in November someone from Adult Protective Services (APS), a City Agency, knocked on her door. Someone (probably the landlord) had said she needed to be under APS “protection.” The APS person, and a social worker, questioned her, and her sister, who was present, for an hour, and produced a report saying that Fran was mildly schizophrenic, unclean, lived in a cluttered apartment, slept in the hallway, etc. Fran took the report to a Korean agency, who had a Korean speaking social worker examine her. This social worker came up with a different conclusion. Fran filed an appeal, had a hearing before a “designee” of the State Department of Health, and was told that she was now under APS protection. She was told that she would be evaluated for possible placement in a nursing home and/or a “deep cleaning” of her apartment. “Deep cleaning” means that some contractor comes in and throws away 90% of your possessions.
Besides the unsupervised “deep cleaning,” one of the problems with APS protection is that it usually means an application by APS, to a court, to have a guardian appointed. When someone has no money, that guardian is usually a social services agency, which acts as a guardian for hundreds of people. Those agencies then gain total control of someone’s life. They control all of your money. They control where you live. They have the power to place a person in a nursing home, which is their preferred solution. Once at the nursing home they are required to visit only once every quarter. I learned about all of this when I got involved in the Ruth Berk saga. Ruth was in the bed next to an incapacitated neighbor of mine, in a now closed nursing home in a fancy setting on the Upper East Side. The nursing home had three women in a room, 30 on a floor, attended to by three nurse’s aides. Many people there were non-ambulatory, and would have to lay in their waste for hours before getting attended to. To shut people up the home would pump them full of valium and other tranquilizers. After those tranquilizers killed my neighbor, I swore that I would get Ruth out. She had no reason to be there. She was ambulatory, she was cogent, she could sing, and she wanted to go home. It took me over two months and four legal submissions (including a Federal Habeas Corpus petition) to get her out. I succeeded only by becoming her guardian. I then made sure she lived at home for most of the rest of her life.
So when Fran came to my office, she was less fearful of the landlord than of APS and what they would do to her. She was terrified that someone would come in the middle of the night, cart her off to a nursing home, take all of her money, and basically end her life as a free person. The New York Times recently had a long investigative piece about people this has happened to. In a city like New York, with landlords clamoring to get rid of old people, and a lack of serious support systems for older residents, this is a growing problem. While I have agreed to be there for Fran, there are hundreds if not thousands of Frans out there, older residents with no immediate family, and friends who are equally as old and infirm and in no position to help. It is a serious human rights issue which needs to be addressed.
Corey Johnson, Brad Hoylman, Debra Glick. Your help is needed.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village, and President of Advocates for Justice.