Mary “Chiz” Chisholm.

If you didn’t know any better, where would you think the schizophrenic population goes to stay after the hospital stabilizes and releases them? The answer: if not home, then likely nowhere.

“This is a home for people who have typically not had a home,” explained Mary “Chiz” Chisholm, 10-year director of the Chiz’s Heart Street homeless shelter. Due to decades of state budget cuts, residential treatment programs have become extremely rare and very hard to get into. Hospitals are equipped to do little more than stabilize a mentally ill patient, and seldom will hold a patient more than three weeks. When a person is released, if they do not have a home to where they can return, they are in immediate need of housing and their next dosage.

Whereas drug addicts and alcoholics have those in recovery advocating for them, the mentally ill are usually only noticed pushing shopping carts along Broadway or when they appear on the police blotters. They are all too often mocked, ignored, mistreated and marginalized. In an era where the mental health services they rely upon are cut back more and more each year, they cannot defend themselves.

Thirty-four of the 39 Heart Street residents are diagnosed schizophrenic. Chisholm explained that despite popular beliefs, not everyone is granted a space: “Though I believe all human beings deserve to be seen and to be helped, there are certain behaviors that cannot live in harmony with the neighbors and with the soft souls of the house,” said Chisholm, listing sex offenders, arsonists and people who commit violent acts as those she can’t take in. “This is truly a home for people who are ‘touched,’ mentally and/or physically. The people who live here oftentimes have dual diagnoses (mentally ill and chemically addicted) and are challenged in many ways,” said Chisholm. “What the house offers is a home where each person is held and acknowledged for who they are, just as they are, that they are beautiful and loved with no judgment.”

Residents make it to her door sent by hospitals, the Department of Social Services, Adult Protective Services and the Mental Health Association. Heart Street is a clean and sober house in which all residents must adhere to their treatment plans and agree to undergo drug and alcohol testing.

Home-steady

Chiz’s Heart Street is a concord purple, 6,000 square-foot, three-story Victorian at the intersection of quiet residential Orchard and West Chestnut streets. It’s not the most likely spot one would expect to find a boarding house, and the neighbors historically have agreed with that sentiment, especially while contending with residents pacing, congregating or smoking outside. “It took a long time to develop relationships of a positive nature with the neighbors, in part due to my own defensiveness,” said Chisholm. “As time has gone by, I have become more open to listening and trying to do all I can to address the neighbors questions or concerns; there are certainly degrees of acceptance by all, which is understandable, it is a very large family.”

Upon entering into the lavender-painted main lobby, quiescent residents of all adult ages and races are milling about as though it is a cocktail party. Some are lounging post-meal; some sit in a fog in a corner while others busily chat with the nurses, Chisholm or one another. The residents approach one another with ease, security and comfort, suggesting they feel safe in this atmosphere. The house has three floors with 10 bedrooms, six bathrooms and an outbuilding as well, owned by a retired psychiatric nurse to whom Chisholm pays monthly rent. Separately there is a community food pantry called Heart Street Food Pantry, which serves 10 to 15 families per day, 150 families per month.  Chisholm noted over the past several years the population the food pantry services has shifted from being the same faces to new faces every day — the shrunken-out middle class — coming from beyond Kingston. Once upon a time Chisholm had no problem lining the food pantry’s shelves from private donations and food banks. Now, though, she said she has never been so low on food before, and is now in desperate need of food, diapers, baby formula and dry-goods donations.

Chisholm herself is a petite blond Vietnam veteran and Air Force sergeant who once upon a time worked as an engineer and welder on the nitrogen lines for the space shuttle, a three-wheeled car, reactors, turbine engines, pile loop systems as well as Hell’s Angels’ motorcycles. She’s a strong but self-described “shy” person, with warm eyes and a broad smile. Chisholm said that her life as an orphan fostered an ability to connect with society’s marginalized populations and left her with a deep spiritual core and the strong belief that everyone has a story.

Day in and day out

Many residents attend day treatment programs every day and live very structured lives. Breakfast is at 6 a.m., lunch is served at 10:30 a.m. and dinner at 3 p.m. to accommodate the day treatment program’s schedule as well as residents’ medication schedules, which often involve powerful tranquilizers. Residents are often treated to ice cream dessert following dinner — a wildly popular treat which generates much enthusiasm. Chisholm’s day begins at 3 a.m. to get everything together.

Chisholm insists the number one reason the residents under her roof thrive is simple: their medications are organized for them and supervised. In other words, they take their meds.  Chiz’s Heart Street has two WellCare visiting nurses five days per week who arrive in the morning and stay much of the day to help monitor residents and administer medications.   In the event that a resident “decompensates,” there are pick-up orders in place as well as treatment plans laid out by their providers. When all else fails, she calls the police.  Before 7 a.m. on a recent Monday morning, for instance, four police cars came to quietly take away one resident who was suffering strong auditory hallucinations.

According to the nurses, like all aging populations, Chiz’s residents have their share of health problems apart from their mental illness. But unlike many of us, they’re seldom organized enough to attend to it. Diabetes, said Heart Street visiting nurse Joie Deutsch, is the most common. Deutsch and fellow nurse Jean Grant said the vibe changes every day — some days there is a lot of hubbub, other days are very quiet.  Deutsch said she uses humor and interaction to distract agitated residents.

‘A jewel of a place’

“I think it’s a jewel of a place,” said Sister Mary Feehan, vice-president of mission at Benedictine Hospital, whose job it is to keep the Catholic mission in the hospital setting. Feehan painted the picture using words such as “warmth,” “respect” and “loving.”

“Mary treats them as individuals,” she added. “She knows them. They know her. She is in contact with their families when possible. She looks after them as a loving person would, and that just spills out all over the place. They are not a number or statistic or a paycheck; and that works miracles and how well some of those people do, and can leave. They have been regarded, respected and they flourish. They are known as individuals by Mary.”

Sixty-year-old “Magoo,” one of the few residents not suffering from serious mental illness, described how the daily chores keep everyone feeling necessary and invested, operating like a family. She said Chisholm is a stickler for the rules, particularly the rules of mutual respect, minding “please” and “thank-you.”

Several years ago, Kingston resident Malcolm Burn made a documentary called “Touched” with Emmylou Harris, entirely filmed at Heart Street and depicting the inner world of the schizophrenic population. Fifty-two-year-old schizophrenic Katie of Kingston who said her paranoia peaked while on 23-hour lock-down in prison, said she has stayed at the shelter on and off for eight years and when she is not there she is using crack and sleeping in abandoned buildings. Katie’s medications, Bible study, group therapy and personal counseling help keep her hallucinations and drug yearnings at bay.  Katie is vibrant, coherent and communicative, simply explaining how her family “doesn’t recognize mental illness.” She attributes her success to the security from Chiz’sHeart Street.

Twenty-one-year-old Michael of Saugerties was nervous when he first arrived at Heart Street because he didn’t know what would and would not set people off. “It was very stressful when I got here,” he explained. “When I first got here I was terrified of people.” Michael said when he first met his now best friend, LaVon, he was even concerned that LaVon might steal from him. “Managing other people’s mood disorders can be very stressful. You have to be careful what you say or do around here, or you can set someone off.”  Michael said it’s not too common for his fellow residents to go off, averaging about twice a month.

He was studying history in a Florida-based college up until last year when he began to hear voices, specifically those of his older brother and sister. He said delusions of grandeur, paranoia, self-esteem issues and the auditory hallucinations coupled with a profound marijuana addiction made it impossible to stay on without help. His father refused to take him back in.

Michael described the voices as “like me trying to think through their perspective in their own voices in my head,” and likened them to “commentary.” Michael said he is now on Wellbutrin, among other things; however, he needed to learn how to control the voices, and so he uses coping mechanisms such as talking with people.

“Many times we may think that the tenderness of mental illness cannot touch the insides of our lives, but, if we think really hard, we find that there is someone in our past, present or future who will pull against the learning that comes with psychotropics and voices that scream in the darkness,” said Chisholm. “In knowing this, we can all share the light, know the dawn. Accepting that which seems insurmountable in the very people we may have feared.”