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 My Story: For The Least Of These My Sisters And Brothers

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

I am writing this column on Tuesday evening. Tuesday is a very special day of the week. Every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. I arrive at Daybreak Apartments, a 20 unit housing complex built for the benefit of persons who suffer from long-term mental illnesses. I always have in hand a large box of pastries that I have purchased at a local bakery. By the time I can get to a seat at the large table in the complex dayroom, a dear friend has poured me a cup of fresh coffee along with a cup of water. The cup of water is her way of saying that her friend should not drink a second cup of coffee. She is certain that too much coffee is not good for anyone.

About three quarters of the tenants visit the dayroom on Tuesday mornings. Some stay for an hour and a half. Others pass through, grab a pastry and disappear out the door. Each has a story that would make a chapter in a great book about the people of Daybreak Apartments. Many of my favorite people live in that attractive building on Hemmer Road.

I have had a long-time interest in people will mental illnesses. I cannot say when it first began, but it became very real over 50 years ago when my younger sister was struck down with a schizophrenic episode. At the time, she was in her mid-twenties, was married and had four young children. Psychiatrists did not understand the disease and the treatments were primitive to say the least. ...

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My sister’s behavior was out of control, and she was institutionalized for periods of time. I and others in the family wanted to help, but apparently nothing could be effectively done. We are all church folk and prayer did nothing. Her husband, a successful insurance agent, spent a small fortune looking for the best help available.

I remember the day when I read an article in a medical journal that said scientists had concluded that schizophrenia was a disease caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and was treatable with medication. I cried. Not too long after, my sister was placed on medications that were highly experimental at the time. She was stabilized and helped finish raising her four children. All four are now healthy and productive citizens. Her husband is a candidate for sainthood.

I am one of the founders of the not-for-profit corporation that owns Daybreak Apartments. I personally supervised the construction. I am a founder of Daybreak Mental Health Services Coordinators. It is a not-for-profit corporation that works almost exclusively with adults with long-term mental illnesses. We employ six full-time professional social workers who work with over 100 clients. Our social workers do only one thing. They get clients hooked up with needed services.

Daybreak Apartments is a special place. It is made special by the tenants. Each tenant has her/his own one bedroom apartment complete with kitchen and bath. People are completely free to come and go. There is no supervising staff in the building. A few own cars. A majority are registered voters. They own cats and dogs that are special to all the tenants. They collectively have many skills. Artists, craft makers, doll makers, mechanics, a volunteer fireman, great cooks and volunteers in the community reside at Daybreak. They are mothers and fathers. They come from backgrounds of both wealth and poverty. Some are veterans. Some are college graduates. Ages range from early 20s to senior citizens.

One reality is common to all. They all have been diagnosed with a serious long-term mental illness. Often the experience of mental diseases has been complicated by alcoholism and drug addiction. All work with professional counselors and are under the care of a psychiatrist. Most have spent time in the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Some are active in churches. A few have significant records of time in jail.

Daybreak Apartments was built with money from a low-interest, long-term loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Every apartment is covered by a Section 8 certificate. With a Section 8 certificate, all tenants pay rent equal to 30 percent of their incomes, and the balance of the rent is paid by HUD. The primary source of income for Daybreak tenants comes from Social Security Disability payments. Health care comes through Medicare or Medicaid. In some cases further support comes from the State of Alaska. Some veterans qualify for VA subsidies and services.

Every tenant at Daybreak Apartments and every client of Daybreak Mental Health Services Coordinators is my kin. I cherish the time I spend at Daybreak Apartments on Tuesday morning. The tenants are my brothers and sisters.

People who have long-term mental illnesses are often the victims of misunderstanding, abuse, bullying, and ridicule. They often lose marriages, children, families and friends. Collectively we are their best and possibly last hope for restoration to a meaningful life. To our dismay, when they become recipients of public assistance, they are accused of being unworthy freeloaders.

Any suggestion that as a nation we cannot afford to care for those who suffer mental illnesses is an offense to my Christian conscience. It should be an offense to the conscience of the entire nation.

The End


The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[07 October 2012]

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