Room and board, blood and glass

Unlicensed care facilities for the developmentally disabled are a mixed blessing

Jeff Weems, 42 years old and developmentally disabled, has been moved in and out of various unlicensed facilities in the search for safe, affordable housing.

Jeff Weems, 42 years old and developmentally disabled, has been moved in and out of various unlicensed facilities in the search for safe, affordable housing.

Photo By Larry Dalton

For the families of disabled adults, the search for safe, affordable housing in Sacramento can lead to a great deal of resentment and guilt. Joseph Weems, who owns a house in Land Park, recently learned that his developmentally disabled brother, Jeff, had been moved from home to home half a dozen times in the last couple of months. Some of those homes, according to Weems, were uninhabitable.

Joseph says he now might seek a conservatorship over his brother so that he can find Jeff a licensed care facility that will make all the most important decisions for him: what to eat, when to medicate, and how to spend his money and time.

“I worry people look at me and think I’m abdicating my responsibility,” said Joseph, who’s chosen not to room with his brother, “yet I know he requires a staff.”

Jeff Weems, a lean, good-natured 42-year-old with prematurely gray hair, relies on nonprofit organizations like Turning Point Community Programs to help him find housing, psychological care and a community of friends. But even with their help, Jeff has run up against his limits. As Joseph explains, he’s not able to work a stove safely, or pay bills on a regular schedule. Sometimes, he’s not aware he’s being taken advantage of.

Sitting in the sun at his neighborhood Starbucks, Joseph explained that Jeff once called to complain that new friends of his were dealing drugs out of his apartment. The visitors had recently installed a deadbolt on the door.

Joseph tries not to get too involved with Jeff and his living situation, he said, but sometimes it’s impossible not to.

About a month ago, Jeff, who was living in a room-and-board facility—where utilities and daily meals are included in the rent—was moved to a new location by his landlady, who owned a number of room-and-board homes, as well as a pair of fourplex apartment buildings in a notoriously dangerous area of Citrus Heights. Jeff’s family was not notified of the move.

Within a couple of days, Jeff called his sister Julie from a Citrus Heights pay phone. The apartment, he told her, had broken windows. Glass was on the kitchen floor. There were rags stained with blood on the floor, he said, and the apartment had no electricity or phone service. Jeff, who was used to having his meals provided, also complained that the refrigerator was empty.

Julie called her brother Joseph, Joseph called Turning Point, and a caseworker from Turning Point retrieved Jeff from the Citrus Heights apartment and placed him in a new room-and-board, which belonged to the same landlady, Lee Davis. Once Jeff’s siblings started making phone calls to Davis and various agencies to complain, they asked Turning Point to move Jeff, yet again, for fear that Davis would evict him.

Jeff moved into emergency housing before relocating to his current home on Winding Way. On a large parcel of land, two older homes with multiple bedrooms are rented to men like Jeff who live on limited incomes and possess a limited ability to take care of themselves. The landlords live in two houses on the same piece of property.

Turning Point’s Karin Roland admitted that occasionally landlords do move clients from place to place without notifying Turning Point. But the same clients, she said, sometimes prefer to stay with those landlords, even when offered better options. “I can’t explain it,” she said.

Turning Point focuses on helping their clients achieve independence and exercise their rights to choose their own housing situation. But their choices are limited by finances and availability. According to Jeff’s family, he lives on a little more than $800 a month in Social Security. As Roland mentioned, with most of their clients on supplemental disability, “a lot of times our members don’t have a lot of other options.”

Roland said she could not discuss Jeff’s specific case because of privacy concerns.

Though Roland and others claim that safe, affordable housing is the biggest challenge facing developmentally disabled adults in Sacramento, new monies soon will flow toward housing because of Proposition 63, approved by voters in 2004, which will increase taxes of those who make more than $1 million a year. The new law is estimated to add $275 million to mental-health benefits in 2004 and 2005 alone, increasing in future years.

Currently, housing options for developmentally disabled adults in Sacramento fall into a few categories.

For high-functioning individuals who can cook, pay bills and hold jobs, there are a small number of low-rent apartments.

If, as in Jeff’s case, cooking is too risky, room-and-board facilities include the cost of food and utilities in the rent. Since they provide no other care to residents, room-and-boards don’t have to be licensed. According to a list compiled by Sacramento Self Help Housing, room-and-boards run between $500 and $700 a month. Often, rooms are shared between two residents.

If room-and-board facilities do not provide enough care, board-and-care facilities, which are licensed and regulated, will. Their staffs can distribute medication to residents, schedule residents’ free time, help them dress or groom themselves and help them manage their money.

Asked what it would take to move a lower-functioning adult into a board-and-care, Roland said that the client simply had to want to. If, however, a family member wants to make that decision for him, the family member first would have to be granted a conservatorship by a judge.

According to Davis, her room-and-board residents sometimes choose to move into apartments because of the cheaper rent. Jeff’s two-bedroom apartment rented for $900 a month, she said, or $450 a room, which was $100 to $200 less than a room-and-board.

Though apparently Jeff went willingly into the apartment situation, his brother Joseph believes that it was not a decision he was competent to make. He feels that if Davis’ room-and-board facilities were under some kind of regulation, she would not have had the freedom to move his brother to an unsafe environment without repercussions.

Joseph supports regulation for other reasons as well. He claimed that landlords at other room-and-boards have let trashed appliances and furniture fill up the backyards. Or, they’ve installed high fences around the perimeter of their homes and kept them locked, in spite of the potential fire hazard.

Shouldn’t somebody who has six to eight developmentally disabled adults under her roof, Joseph wondered, have to meet some kind of regulatory standard? Jeff may be one of many thousands who are too functional for a board-and-care facility, he said, but not functional enough for a room-and-board.

In fact, the city and county have considered regulating room-and-board facilities in the past. A 1997 report prepared by the “Unlicensed Facility Task Force of the Sacramento County Adult and Aging Commission” identified a number of problems with room-and-boards: Some provided the same services as board-and-care facilities, but without the appropriate license or oversight. Room-and-boards were not routinely monitored for building and fire safety. The city and county were inconsistent in how they defined room-and-boards, and operators “often do not comply with sanctions and are not penalized for such actions.”

The task force recommended “the City and County should take whatever steps are necessary to establish a common local permit for room and board facilities, including reasonable fees to be dedicated to administration, monitoring and enforcement.”

Though the report was adopted, so far, according to many in mental-health services, no such permitting process exists. However, the community care licensing division of the state Department of Health and Human Services will investigate complaints.

Sayonara Drive, right off Sunrise Boulevard, is lined with almost identical fourplexes. In the afternoons, people stand outside talking on their small landings or on the sidewalk.

On a recent afternoon, a number of tenants, some without their shirts, stood outside talking to Davis and Joe Rider, who supervises Davis’ properties. Together, Davis and Rider made a loud and insistent pair. Rider said that he personally cleaned up the unit originally rented to Jeff and his roommate—but only after the pair moved in. When Jeff left, his roommate remained, and he is still waiting for someone to help with the rent. Asked why Jeff wanted to leave, his former roommate, who would not give his name, shrugged his shoulders.

Davis, in slightly accented English, said that many landlords refuse to rent to people on Social Security, but not her. She doesn’t discriminate.

Davis walked up the steps to the upper unit once inhabited by Jeff and pushed open the door. Inside, though the carpet was worn and stained, the walls recently had been painted, and the kitchen, while bare of table and chairs, appeared functional. Davis said that when she had the time, she planned to bring the men some furniture.

Though all the windows appeared to be intact and there were no bloody rags on the floor, Davis admitted that a window into the kitchen had been broken when the two men arrived. Drug dealers, said Davis, regularly broke into her units and squatted in the empty apartments. She had not replaced the glass before the men arrived, she said, because she was tired of cleaning up the apartments and having them vandalized again before she found a new tenant.

Once she had tenants, she said, she replaced the window, and Rider cleaned up the apartment.

As for food, electricity and phone service, Davis said, these things aren’t provided by a landlord. This wasn’t a room-and-board, but an apartment that was the renter’s responsibility.

In contrast, the house where Jeff currently is staying has a resident who cooks, and another—Tim Worlein—who acts as house monitor, enforcing the rules: no drugs, no alcohol and no violence. Also, each resident has to perform the chore assigned to him each day.

The kitchen in the Winding Way house is dark, but the spacious counters look fairly clean. The bedrooms are small, crammed with double beds and numerous storage units. Both Jeff and his roommate have televisions at the foot of their beds, and Jeff’s roommate brews his own coffee.

Though the house looks somewhat run-down, the residents claim to like it better than their other placements.

Worlein explained, “We sacrifice a little bit of cosmetic beauty to have our own home.”