At NYCHA’s Bailey Houses, Quality of Life Impacts Mental Health

Teisha Jones and her daughter, Dakota Taylor, in their apartment at Bailey Houses. (Photo by David Cruz for Voices of NY)

Though Tiesha Jones comes from a tight-knit family, hosting a holiday gathering with her extended family remains out of the question. Living for the past four years in Bailey Houses, a decrepit complex that’s home to some 900 tenants, Jones is embarrassed over her living quarters.

From the first floor up to its last, a list of fixes is required at the 20-story property overlooking the Major Deegan Expressway. A faulty plumbing system, sloppy patchwork and caved-in ceilings characterize Bailey Houses, a property belonging to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) that was built in 1972. Enduring years of disrepair, moreover, is causing undue stress to some residents.

Jones faced the same problem while living at Fort Independence Houses, Bailey Houses’ sister property. There a doctor diagnosed her as having clinical depression partly caused by conditions in her apartment she described as “horrifying,” including a bathtub that only ran cold water. Jones was forced to warm pots of water on the stove and transport them to the bathtub for her kids to bathe in. She ultimately sought a social worker for some talk therapy and avoided taking medications.

For Jones, who serves as president of the building’s Residents Council, it’s clear that conditions are also threatening the mental health of her fellow tenants at Bailey Houses. Speaking to the Norwood News from her living room, where a large chalky patch of repaired drywall contrasts sharply with her navy blue wall, Jones describes how poor housing affects mental health.

“You come in your home – you got toilet stoppages, leaks and so forth, your elevator not working – and it makes you depressed, especially when you have tickets that are put in and you have to wait such a long time to get repairs done, it takes a toll on you, especially mentally,” said Jones, referencing the NYCHA repair tickets tenants must submit to have repairs made in their apartment. Repairs can take months.

While at Fort Independence, Jones spoke to a talk therapist to get manage her depression. These days, Jones manages her depression by fighting for tenants.

Helene “Jake” Wilson, vice president of the Residents Council, feels the same way. In her case, she was forced out of her tenth-floor apartment after a steam pipe exploded in 2016, destroying virtually everything inside. For six months Wilson lived with her son while repairs were made, only after she repeatedly complained and pushed for them to be undertaken.

“I was living in here with mold and mildew and my apartment was 102 degrees. I lost 15 pounds in here,” said Wilson.

‘It needs to be spoken about’

Depression had slowly set in.

“I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown,” said Wilson. “I had to take a leave of absence from my position [as Residents Council vice president] so that I can focus on what I needed to focus on.”

Her waves of depression, and that of other tenants, underscore the costs of poorly maintained public housing for some of the city’s most vulnerable. Conditions like asthma and lead poisoning may be widely recognized as affecting NYCHA residents, but mental health issues also loom large.

“Mental illness is becoming a main factor for residents in public housing,” said Jones.  “And it needs to be spoken about.”

At Fort Independence Houses, Jones worried a lot for the safety of her kids given the ongoing conditions. For Jones, the children should have been worried about their upcoming test they prepared to take. “I’m surprised they passed,” she said.

Substandard housing impacts children the greatest, according to a study by How Housing Matters, a housing advocacy group whose 2013 study of poor housing conditions and its impact on children was funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The study surveyed 2,400 low-income children, teens and young adults between the ages of 2 and 21 living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio.

“Children exposed to homes with leaking roofs, broken windows, rodents, nonfunctioning heaters or stoves, peeling paint, exposed wiring, or unsafe or unclean environments experienced greater emotional and behavioral problems,” states the report’s executive summary. “Housing quality also was related to school performance for older children, with adolescents in poorer quality homes showing lower reading and math skills in standardized achievement tests.”

A 2016 study of five NYCHA developments in East Harlem by New York University NYU Langone Department of Population Health found 27 percent of the total 1,123 participating tenants rate their mental health as fair or poor. In the summary brief, researchers at NYU deemed the mental health finding a “critical concern for this community,” blaming already existing poor health and economic stressors for it. Though no question was asked explicitly about the condition of the respondent’s apartment and its relationship to mental health, Lorna Thorpe, PhD, MPH lead researcher for the study, said: “It makes very plausible sense that it’s a contributor.”

Social workers

NYCHA employs 13 social workers who largely serve as a liaison for full service mental health clinics through direct referral and outreach. In the Bronx, there are three social workers, including a supervisor, assigned to monitor the network of 574 buildings.

In certain circumstances, social workers step in during psychiatric emergencies, traumatic incidents, domestic violence, child abuse/neglect and elder abuse.

With so few social workers on staff, their job often involves providing referrals, or referring residents to a NYCHA-operated social services center. One center is available in the Morris Park/Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, roughly an hour bus ride from Bailey Houses.

While Jones has heard of the service, she and the tenants she knows in the building haven’t utilized the service. Wilson said this was the first time she’s heard about it.

“They never brought [the social workers] here,” said Wilson. “There’s a lot of people who can use one.”

In addition to employing the 13 social workers, the beleaguered agency trains other staffers to understand and manage mentally ill tenants through one-day trainings sponsored by ThriveNYC, the city’s initiative to add greater understanding and compassion to the mentally ill. NYCHA staffers are trained to recognize the signs of anxiety and depression. Dr. Gary Belkin, executive deputy commissioner of mental hygiene for the city, told Gotham Gazette. that “people residing in NYCHA housing or rental assisted housing, or either, are two to three times more likely to have what we call ‘serious psychological distress.”

In a statement, Michael Giardina, a spokesman for NYCHA, said the agency offers “youth, senior and social services to support household stability and empower all NYCHA residents with the services they need.”

Giardina added, “We strive to provide all NYCHA families with safe, clean and connected communities.”

Julie Cuevas, a 30-year tenant who works as a school bus matron, has battled bouts of depression on her own. An enormous hole inside her closet has yet to be patched up, and there has been no remediation of the mold growing in one of her closets. Her bedroom still awaits the paint job she requested in April. She may not see it until September. Outside her apartment, flickering lights need replacement.

Waiting worsens her mood, a mix of frustration and sadness.

“You shouldn’t have to feel stressed or depressed or feel in a bad mood when coming into your home,” Cuevas, 37, said. “You should actually feel happy when you come into where you live.”

David Cruz is editor of Norwood NewsThis article was written as part of the 2018 Health Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the Craig Newmark  Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and funded by a grant from News Corp.

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