(MSCC) John Mudd, September 25, 2018 — I’m on the Q train to Surf Manor, an assisted living facility in Coney Island, Brooklyn, to confirm Alejandro Medina’s complaints and my suspicions of their substandard care. Alejandro moved there on December 1, 2017. His transition from Highland Care, a rehabilitation center, to this assisted living facility was poorly managed, and he and I have been ill at ease since. Not that I need confirmation: Alejandro’s word is plenty good, but more to objectively verify and independently investigate their possible negligence.
When someone is labeled “homeless” or “poor” it often becomes their identity, as if they suddenly exist as “them” rather than walking, talking, red-bleeding souls. It forms prejudices and invites cruelty. Is it happenstance that this age old problem is impossible to eradicate and that it is able to persist in part through lack of funding, housing, political will, and other obstacles presented by our society? Is it happenstance that the majority of people below the poverty line and in prisons are people of color? Homelessness is no different than other biases. Refusal to humanely support our brothers and sisters and to tear away constructs advocates division, oppression, and isolation.
In some tribal cultures, praise is not used, purposely, to discourage the swelling of egos. All things are shared. They care for their own. But wistfulness for those tribal days does not lend itself to practicality. While tribal cultures are being vanquished and their familial structure decimated and homogenized into cell phone and Facebook using cultish droids, we would do well to maintain the good—equality and care for all.
Back to the train ride: Approaching the Kings Highway stop, it’s as if the trestle’s frosty iron limbs reached into the belly of crusty New York and pulled the Q train high for a view of the town’s rooftops. The buildings receding along the skyline allowed for a gleam of sun to overwhelm the train car and distract me from writing Alejandro’s story. Over my right shoulder, away from the buildings which barely obscure the Atlantic Ocean, dilapidated and gutted houses rot away, and lawns, porches, and even roofs are littered with trash. The “greatest nation on earth”? I’d laugh if the thought weren’t so tragic. Sheepshead Bay, one of the stops along my route, attempts to merge city with suburbia. Deteriorated housing left to waste away—it’s fitting, sadly, as to the care we provide our homeless and elders. The sea briefly takes over until the Coney Island ferris wheel—The Wonder Wheel—comes into full view as we arrive at our final destination. I’ve ridden an hour and 30 minutes on the Q train; another ten-minute’s walk to arrive at Surf Manor. A smattering of businesses are open with only their attendants. Roadways are littered with large construction pipes waiting to be buried. The place looks barren.
If I haven’t given you a clear picture of Alejandro Medina, he is a likable fellow, polite and friendly, with an air of caution, or perhaps paranoia, which often translates to a subtle rise of his brow. He can be overwhelmed by emotion and frustration, but he’ll warm up to the right people. He found me and he found Dudley, a seemingly helpful guy who is astute and concerned with helping to find a better way, as am I.
Dudley Koonce was born in 1948, he turned 69 years old on December 28th. He has a sister in New Rochelle, a nephew, and a son in Peekskill. The rest of his family does not have much to do with him. He’s been entrenched in New York urban life. He was a boxer in his younger years, but was forced to retire early having been blinded by too many punches to his right eye. He became a baker, a career that supported him up until his later years. He receives Social Security I’m not sure the amount but will wager it can’t pay for a market rate apartment in New York City. After losing his below market rate Bronx apartment in a fire in 2015, he moved to the streets. He developed ulcers on both legs, which are discolored and hard to look at…similar to Alejandro’s. He is able to walk but with much difficulty and pain. He drinks three beers a day…when that began, I don’t know. If you can survive living on the streets you can survive anywhere and anything—that’s what Dudley says, as the three of us (Dudley, Alejandro, and myself) sit at a cafeteria table.
Dudley found residency at the same place and in the same way Alejandro did. He went through six months of rehab at Highland Care, and then his social worker, Patrick Sokhu, secured a spot for him at Surf Manor. He’s been living there for eight months with no ongoing rehab care. Even though Patrick was able to create a successful pipeline from rehab to permanent housing, the end result appears imperfect.
Dudley paints a clearer image of Surf Manor’s unpleasant living conditions. He describes most of the staff as nasty and belligerent. I mention an unpleasant experience I had with one of the staff, Mika, and he tells me they’re all like her. He gives me a sense of Surf Manor’s hierarchy: Josh Teller runs the place—he’s listed as administrator on the website. Joseph is Josh’s subordinate. According to Dudley, Josh orders food for the facility, and he’s been seen taking large quantities (meats, vegetables) out of the premises from midnight to 1 AM. Joseph seems to wear many hats, taking on the responsibility of dispensing medication, accounting, and giving residents their allowance. Dudley says that Joseph is holding back cash from the mentally impaired and less lucid residents. He also says they match severely mentally handicapped residents with the general public without much supervision. Dudley corroborates Alejandro’s story of people left alone to roam the halls after defecating and peeing on themselves. Residents fight with each other, drink, and use drugs near the front entrance. Security is non-existent.
I assume that Dudley has a decent size tolerance so when he tells me that the aides are not cleaning his room, I can only imagine how grossly neglected it is. He also says there are plumbing issues with the sink and toilet.
I had wanted to get there earlier, around lunchtime, but I procrastinated and slept late. I wanted to see what Alejandro was eating: he once told me he had two hot dogs for a meal. The food is Kosher, but is that synonymous with quality? A small slice of spongy wheat bread in plastic wrap suggests it’s not. The tables are covered in vinyl fabric. They have not been wiped. Plastic forks, knives, and napkins sealed and unsealed in plastic are scattered on tables and floors. Used napkins are strewn about. Alejandro and Dudley tell me that no one will clean until after dinner. I am not allowed beyond the cafeteria: possibly another red flag. Lanelle, the attendant on duty, tells me those are the rules, and Joseph is not there to give further permission.
My early review: Not quite the insane asylum depicted in the “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” but far from the progressive values that we pretend to have. It’s hard to believe that this type of substandard care is allowed to go on in New York, supposedly the greatest city in the greatest nation on earth. Where is the oversight? Clustering people together without respect for their individuality, devaluing their autonomy, isolating people to the fringes of society, mismanaging their care, and minimizing support services undermines a person’s growth, mobility, and only serve to strip away their dignity. Rather than merely a better option than the streets, we should be nurturing mind, body, and spirit.