Monday, June 5, 2017

Report Finds Barriers to Justice for Individuals in New York City Courts

Report Finds Barriers to Justice for Individuals in New York City Courts
By Nahid Sorooshyari, Senior Staff Attorney, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
We Examine the ADA Liaison Program
People with disabilities should have equal access to justice. Disability rights laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), require courts to make their programs and services accessible to people with disabilities. The New York Unified Court System (UCS) has a program for helping people with disabilities, called the ADA Liaison program. However, a recent report by MFY Legal Services found that the program needs to be improved.
The ADA requires courts to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. Courts must also make reasonable accommodations to their rules, policies, and procedures so that people with all types of disabilities—including psychiatric and invisible disabilities—can participate in the court’s services, programs, and activities to the same extent as people without disabilities. UCS has assigned at least one “ADA Liaison” to each courthouse. ADA Liaisons are court employees who should know about the ADA and how to work with people with disabilities. People with disabilities can contact their local ADA Liaison to request a reasonable accommodation or get information about their rights and are encouraged to do so before they come to court. The program could be a great help, but it has serious flaws.
Many people who need the program do not even know it exists. UCS is supposed to advertise information about the ADA and the ADA Liaison program. It uses an “Accessibility Information Webpage” to do so, but this webpage is not always highlighted on individual court websites or on other parts of the UCS website. UCS is also supposed to advertise the program in courthouses. UCS has posters to do so, but the posters are poorly designed. For example, they include four symbols—a person in a wheelchair, two hands symbolizing sign-language interpreting, an ear with a bar over it indicating services for the deaf, and a person with a cane. These symbols do not make it clear that people with psychiatric disabilities may also get accommodations.
Someone who finds out about the program faces another problem—reaching an ADA Liaison. UCS’s webpage provides a directory of ADA Liaisons. People are told to use the directory to contact their local ADA Liaison at the listed phone number. In May 2016, MFY tried to confirm the contact information of all forty-nine civil court ADA Liaisons listed for the five boroughs. MFY had a problem contacting the listed ADA Liaison more than 65% of the time. For example, 24% of the names and numbers listed were either for retired or former staff, or someone who stated they were not the ADA Liaison and 18% of the phone numbers simply did not work. Either the number was not in service or the call was sent to voicemail, but the caller could not leave a message. When we could leave a message, 24% of the voicemails were not returned within eight business days.
During the phone survey, MFY spoke to court staff who did not know about the program, or said that there was no ADA Liaison at that court. One person stated that she was given the position, but was never trained. In 2012, MFY requested all training materials provided to ADA Liaisons and documents stating which ADA Liaisons receive training and how often. The Office of Court Administration provided only a two-page pamphlet titled “Communicating with People with Disabilities,” and stated that there were no records about which ADA Liaisons received training or how often.
Probably due to poor training, ADA Liaisons often get the law wrong. For example, an MFY client requested to appear in court by telephone because a medical condition made her incontinent. The ADA Liaison incorrectly said that this was impossible because the client “lived in New York City.”  Also, ADA Liaisons too often suggest guardians ad litem (“GALs”)—people appointed to advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves. Though some people with disabilities may need a GAL, most can advocate for themselves with a reasonable accommodation. For example, someone with agoraphobia should be allowed to appear by telephone, not be assigned a GAL.

MFY’s report recommends ways to improve the ADA Liaison program. Since the report’s publication, MFY has met with court officials and community groups to try to implement these solutions and make justice for all a reality. If you would like to read MFY’s report, please visit our website at 

Let My People Go! A Call to Action

Let My People Go! A Call to Action
By Suzanne Gruer, Former Resident of an Adult Home
The Warehousing of Our Peers Must End
Almost five years ago, I was fortunate to leave the Garden of Eden adult home in which I resided for close to that long. My move from that adult home to the supported housing apartment in which I now reside was a one-time occurrence. Thousands of adult home residents today are less fortunate. They desperately want out. Yet few residents are escaping.
Current adult home residents are desperate to move for the same reasons I was: unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, theft, rancid food, compulsory program attendance, forced and unnecessary medical procedures, punitive hospitalizations, and suffering of all of the above in coerced silence. The owner of Garden of Eden was known for ordering residents to perform tasks for his benefit. Indeed, he once called me to his office to demand that I throw out the remains of his gourmet meal after he dined. Fearing he would hospitalize me if I refused, I complied.
Shortly thereafter, a social worker from the mental health day treatment program I was coerced to attend, in cahoots with a psychiatrist friend, completed an HRA 2010E application for supported housing on my behalf. In less than two months I moved into my airy, sunlit apartment. One month later the social worker lost her job.
Most residents were not as fortunate as I. They had no way out. Adult home owners conspire with day treatment and mental health providers to portray their residents as victims incapable of caring for themselves in a supported apartment milieu. I entered Garden of Eden ready to work so I could move out and rent my own place. Instead of working, I was forced to attend a day treatment program. I sat in that program for close to five years of my life. I now view those years as five wasted years, time I can never get back. Shortly after I moved I obtained employment, proving that I could have worked long before I moved into my apartment.
Frustration has been mounting over the inhumane warehousing of people with mental illness and other disabling conditions for many years. This frustration led to the 1999 Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C., in which the Court ruled that under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), individuals with disabilities are entitled to live in communities of their choosing, rather than in institutions, so they can become integrated, fully participating members of their communities.
In 2003, Disability Rights New York (then Disability Advocates Inc. or DAI), the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, MFY Legal Services, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and pro bono counsel Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the adult home industry’s illegal warehousing of approximately 4,000 individuals with serious mental illness in New York City. In 2009, they prevailed in a five-week federal court trial. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated that ruling on the grounds that the class representative, DAI, did not have standing to represent the class. In other words, the Court stated the class needed to be represented by actual residents living in adult homes.
The case was refiled as O'Toole vs. Cuomo. In 2013, a settlement was reached that required New York State to provide a multi-step, five-year process to transfer potentially over 4,000 adults with mental illness to supported apartments from adult homes.
The first step in this process is “in-reach,” during which housing contractors send representatives into adult homes to ask residents if they want to be assessed. Only about half of the 4,000 class members have expressed a desire to be assessed, largely because of poor “in-reach” and adult home practices that inhibit free discussion, such as lack of privacy to speak with in-reach workers.
Assessment is the second step. Although there are delays at each step, and the State of New York is performing poorly throughout the process, the most significant and alarming delay is at assessment. Because the State has neglected to enforce its contract with Transitional Services for New York, Inc. (TSI), a backlog of over 800 people waiting for assessment has persisted for more than a year. Of the 2,200 adult home residents who have expressed interest in moving to supported housing, approximately 500 residents have actually moved to community apartments over the past three years. A large part of the delay seems to be due to the insufficient staffing of the evaluation team. TSI employs only four people to conduct evaluations of adult home residents who wish to move into apartments in the community.
Both the assessment of a resident and a resident’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) approval (the third step) expire after twelve months. For some residents, there are issues that are never resolved such as assessment discrepancies resulting in either the assessment or the HRA approval timing out. This forces the resident to re-initiate the transition process after they have been expecting to move for at least a year.
The last steps in the transition process are housing contractor referrals and interviews, apartment viewing, apartment selection, moving to an apartment, and coordinating the appropriate services to help each resident to succeed in the community. These steps are conducted poorly as well, with residents often lacking services when they move.
The multistep process is bad. Yet bad has become worse. Over the past two years, more than 1,000 people with serious mental illness have been newly admitted into the impacted adult homes, contrary to the State’s unenforced regulations prohibiting such admissions.
In February 2017, a complex legal situation arose when the State colluded with the adult home industry to challenge the regulations for, and ultimately undo, the settlement.
On March 22nd, the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled (CIAD) spoke out in Albany against all this. This group of residents and allies works to advocate for the 5,000 residents trapped in adult homes. Simultaneously, plaintiffs’ counsel took legal action seeking to uphold the settlement.
Recently, in the comfort of my supported apartment, on my own couch, I watched a newsflash about NYC schoolchildren being fed rancid school lunches and the ensuing outrage. For years as an adult home resident I had no couch on which to sit and had to eat the rancid food served. Last night I cooked myself fresh chicken soup because I felt like it, all the while wondering: Where is the outrage concerning how adult home residents are made to suffer; about how I was made to suffer? Adult home residents, for the most part, are not viewed as the people we are; rather, adult home owners see us as objects that are mere conduits for profit. Most others don’t see us at all.

Note: To find the best way to get involved, please contact Geoff Lieberman of CIAD, at (212) 481-7572, or

A Day of Advocacy and Demonstrations

A Day of Advocacy and Demonstrations
By Carla Rabinowitz, Advocacy Coordinator, Community Access, & Board Member, NYAPRS
NYAPRS Legislative Day 2017

February 28, 2017 was probably my favorite NYAPRS Legislative Day ever. New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services is a 35-year-old organization that brings together mental health recipients and recipient-friendly service providers.
Mental health advocacy has come a long way. We are finally getting the respect we deserve.
The folks in attendance heard from Senator Robert Ortt, Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, a representative from Governor Cuomo’s office, and a representative from the Office of Mental Health. We also gave out awards, including an award to Senator Jeffrion Aubry for his work on criminal justice issues.
New York City folks accounted for about 360 of the 700 people in Albany that day.
NYAPRS statewide folks filled a large auditorium called The Egg, which is shaped like an egg.
We not only heard from leaders in New York State government, we heard from NYAPRS’ Executive Director Harvey Rosenthal. Harvey went over the issues he hoped the attendees would talk about that day, including:
Funding to shore-up existing housing; Funding for new supportive housing and affordable housing; Raising the age for adult criminal responsibility to 18 years of age; Ending solitary confinement, the SHU, once and for all; More funding for comprehensive 36-hour police training around mental health called CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training; and Opposition to Forced Treatment.
I was so excited this year because I got an old-style physical banner created, which read “Supportive housing saves lives, sign the MOU.” The MOU, memorandum of understanding, is a simple contract that the leaders of the NYS Senate, Assembly, and Government must all sign together. If they sign the MOU, $1.9 billion in housing funding gets released, creating 6,000 apartments. If they don’t sign the MOU, the money cannot be released for housing providers and new apartments will be much more difficult to build.
I held up the banner with a friend’s help when the elected officials were speaking in the auditorium and shouted, “Sign the MOU!”
I had some NYAPRS helpers hold up the banner when I spoke about housing on stage, and I carried the banner all around the NYS Capitol. I got some thumbs up signs from elected officials’ staffers, and a few snarls from NYS Security officers.
After listening to Harvey talk about the issues and hearing from some officials, some people went to a rally on the Capitol steps outside. Those attendees carried signs they made at home that read with slogans like “Ban the Box,” and, “There is no health care without housing,” etc.
Other attendees went into the Capitol and Legislative Office Building to visit with key elected officials.
I lead a team to visit some elected officials. My group spoke elegantly about all issues, but focused on housing and opposition to forced treatment. My group of attendees blew me away with how well they spoke. They were some of the most impressive advocates I’ve ever had the pleasure to help coordinate.
Now I am getting ready for the NYC Mental Health Film Festival. We are meeting as a group and screening films to see if the films are worth showing at our film fest.
If you want to join us, contact me, Carla Rabinowitz, or 212-780-1400 x7726.

Ward Stories

Ward Stories
Organized by Dan Frey, Editor in Chief
Four poets are featured in this Summer 2017 edition of Ward Stories: Ayesha, J. Alfreda, Craig Bayer, and Cecil Williams. Themes of love and renewal abound in these selections that I felt were fitting for the spring and summer seasons. Enjoy!

The Truth a Poem
By Ayesha
I used to feel broken inside.
I believed I’d never heal or get better.
I believed I’d be broken forever.
You see I’m better but that does not mean I am “cured” of schizophrenia.
It means I’m on the potter’s wheel.
All human beings have flaws and shortcomings but some see themselves as masterpieces even royalty.
I’m working “on me” in therapy and by registering to take WRAP again but mental illness unfortunately has no cure and is lifelong.
Any psychiatrist or psychologist would say ‘tis true.
So I am going to keep moving forward and just keep working “on me”.
I’m not perfect, I know that, but I love the person I am and was created to be.
Almighty God created me and when he was finished he said “that was good.”
I’m not average. I’m extra-ordinary. I’m eccentric. I’m crazysexycool.
I have become a person that other people acknowledge and seem to like.
That’s good enough for Me.
I wouldn’t want to be super-skinny or want to become another woman who is beautiful by societal standards.
I just want to be myself.
I have three motorcycle jackets that I wear with my motorcycle hat sometimes and I feel powerful whenever I wear it.
I feel like I am a biker chick even if I am a Sunday School Teacher and a volunteer leading a peer support group.
I love my life and I wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone else who either is more “successful,” more “beautiful,” or whatever.
I see myself as having a good life and I love my SZ life even though it’s not perfect, it’s my life and I am proud of my accomplishments. I’ve come a long way.
I am making a Comeback in my 30s. My 20s were hard and my adolescent years were difficult for me. My 30s so far are amazing! I’ll be 36 years old soon!

Finding Your Way Back to Love
By J. Alfreda
return to forever
is a mind refresh
a quest
becoming one with your Maker

your mind
is Universal property
enhanced it prepares you
for the journey
it will pack your bags
if you let it

the receptacle
is the mind Universal

have you ever seen your brain on Love?
it glows—

like a wave
trying to leave the ocean
you can’t get away from Love
it stalks the soul
and so
it is your essence
you can only be blind to it
like a mother
to her child’s inequities

so a walk to Love
is never a return
but a walk to a mirror
where you like
what you see.

By Craig Bayer
My days have always been painful
But now the pain is intense
I check my emails but you haven’t written
I check my messages-you haven’t called
I visit our hangout, but you aren’t there
Are you avoiding me forever?
Have I struck out again?
I’m not sure, now that I want to see you
Because there may be a negative expression on your lovely face
God, I adore that face
But if you look at me the wrong way, it could crush me
I want to flirt with you
Say or sing that you’re the “Sunshine of My Life”
I want to hold you in my arms
And kiss that face all over
I want to stroke your head
But if you fear or hate me now
All fantasizing and daydreaming becomes terrifyingly meaningless
I’m praying to God
That I haven’t lost you completely
That we can still be friends
That you’ll trust me again
I think I fucked up again, though
I think I may have to move on
And I will move on, if necessary

Pride Parade
By Cecil Williams
My Sunday in June was spent at the blown-in-all-directions Pride Parade
And there was a huge atmosphere of excitement that still does not fade
It appears that everyone was into a rainbow dream and a feeling of pride
No longer were we shallow or unhappy about life, which we call a ride
The future holds dreams and connections to each other that we won't hide
It is a movement similar to Civil Rights and no voter or anyone can be denied
Thank goodness Orlando did not crush the gusto but there were a lot of regrets
Too bad the Massacre brought such vibes of finality we said with cigarettes
And there we were marching and seeing dancers who caused a stir in their dance
And couples wore smiles and offered the waiting universe this brand of romance
Some cried out in joy that legislation about marriage gave us a new chance
And looking around the crowd, such wealth of caring could be taken in a glance
We are the proud and we are fitting together the voices for the fight of the gifted
God shines in sunshine-rays and some of the tribulation has been lifted
Tomorrow, I promise that I will be involved in a less depressing set of rules
For the millions who cheer remind us that we walk the path of different schools
We are united and will dance like hippies, our feet that move to the beat on the street
And I, for one, am enchanted and enraptured what Pride Day brought we could meet
Writing about a future goal will uphold the magic of the body, mind, and soul

And let's be hallelujah-grateful that such a lesbian tale can be told

Beyond the Medical Model with Neesa

Beyond the Medical Model with Neesa
A Column by Neesa Sunar, Peer Specialist, Transitional Services for New York, Inc.
The Vital Profession of the Peer Specialist
For the past couple of years, I have been employed as a “peer specialist.” A peer specialist is a mental health professional who has personal lived experience with mental illness. Because peers have suffered themselves, they are able to understand and empathize with the people they work with. This type of experience cannot be learned in university. Thus, peers have expertise that doctors and social workers do not.
I learned about the peer profession when I was in a psychiatric day program in 2012. Once I heard about it, I wanted to work as a peer myself. I applied to the peer specialist training program at Howie the Harp Advocacy Center (HTH) and was accepted. I attended classes at HTH five days a week for twenty weeks, totaling to 500 classroom hours. A 12-week internship followed.
Howie the Harp Advocacy Center is named after one of the first pioneers of the peer movement. Howard Geld was psychiatrically hospitalized as a teenager in the late 60s. At seventeen, he left New York and relocated to the west coast, where he became involved in the Insane Liberation Front. During his life, he was involved in mental health advocacy efforts on the east and west coasts. He earned his moniker of “Howie the Harp” because he was a street performer on the harmonica. In 1993, he became the Director of Advocacy for Community Access. He garnered funds to start a peer specialist training center, slated to open in 1995. Unfortunately, he passed away two weeks before the school opened. The school was named after him in his honor.
While at Howie, I learned about the Recovery Model, which is in stark contrast to the Medical Model. Typically, when one is physically ill, s/he will go to the doctor. The doctor prescribes a medication, and treatment is determined successful when the person’s symptoms are eradicated. Yet with mental health, absence of symptoms is not enough. Side effects can make the “cure” as bad as the mental illness.
The Recovery Model goes beyond this. Everyone is entitled to living a fulfilling life. People should be encouraged and supported to reach for complete wellness, no matter how “severe” their condition may seem. They do not have to submit to the limited expectations that standard providers have. In the past, I held jobs where I hid my diagnosis, only causing additional stress. Now as a peer, I can use my experiences as a strength which can help others. No longer do I feel “broken” and a “danger to society.” Instead, I have developed a sense of empowered pride. I have risen from the ashes of profound disability.
About two years ago, I began working full-time at Transitional Services for New York, Inc. We offer apartments in the community, as well as active case management services. Whenever I meet a new client, I immediately disclose myself.
“Hi, I’m Neesa! I am a peer specialist. Do you know what a peer is?”
Oftentimes, the client does not know. Thus I explain:
“A peer is a person who has mental illness themselves. I myself am diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I’ve been hospitalized seven times. I have been on disability since 2011. I know how this system can wear you down, trying to juggle public assistance and Medicaid and psychiatrists…I’ve lived it. I’m here so that I can relate to you. I know where you’re coming from.
At this point, I always feel like this invisible wall melts between me and the client. My hope is always to strike a chord within the person, wherein s/he can feel safe and open. The greatest fulfillment I experience as a peer is developing that one-on-one relationship with the client. In this therapeutic partnership, I encourage them to determine their own path towards wellness instead of dictating to them how “I think how it should go.”
The peer movement specifically strives to create awareness about mental illness akin to a civil rights movement. So often, psychiatric clients are stripped of their rights, whether it be in institutions or with an outpatient psychiatrist. People are forced into treatments they don’t want for themselves, intimidated by doctors. And then there is also stigma, that pervasive societal attitude that discriminates against those who have a diagnosis.

My hope is that there soon will be widespread awareness about peer specialists. We are able to reach clients in ways that doctors and therapists cannot. We are able to stand as examples of recovery, and we inspire one another to reach higher and further than the negative prognoses from our providers. The work of peers is the future, and we must create awareness to make this happen.

Press Release for the The New York City Mural Arts Project

Announcing the The New York City Mural Arts Project
From the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Fund for Public Health

Murals in the Bronx and Manhattan–developed through community engagement–will address mental illness
NYC DOHMH and the Fund for Public Health have organized a community-based project to create three public murals about mental health in East Tremont, West Bronx, and Hell’s Kitchen. The New York City Mural Arts Project is a collaborative effort between mental health consumers, artists, community-based organizations and the community at large. The two murals in the Bronx will be created by VIP Community Services and muralist Tova Snyder. The mural in Manhattan will be created by Fountain House Gallery and artist Andrew Frank Baer. The Mural Arts Project is part of the City’s effort to increase services and awareness about mental health, and aligns with First Lady Chirlane McCray’s goal to build social cohesion and reduce the stigma that continues to surround mental illness.
The Mural Arts Project will include a series of community activities over the next three months to engage the public in the mural making process and foster community conversations about mental health. The artists will lead weekly workshops at community-based organizations to discuss ideas for the designs. The artists will then present a first draft of the mural and receive feedback from participants. In May, the project will culminate with two Community Paint Days, arts and wellness fairs where the public can paint the murals.
“The Mural Arts Project is an important investment and builds on the impact ThriveNYC has had improving our city’s mental health infrastructure,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray. “Art has the ability to profoundly change the way we think, feel, and even spark meaningful conversation to begin to break down the strongholds of isolation and stigma.”
“The NYC Mural Arts Project is part of a citywide effort to take discussion of mental health from lectures to living rooms, creating the opportunity for a community conversation,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett. “Projects like this engage the community through discussion, thought, and action—ultimately reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.”
“We are pleased to take part in this important effort to connect residents to community-based organizations, social centers, and art in order to bring mental illness out of the shadows and encourage New Yorkers to seek services to help them flourish,” said Sara Gardner, Executive Director of the Fund for Public Health in New York City.
For further information and additional open studio dates, check the Mural Arts Project Facebook page or visit
The Mural Arts Project steering committee includes members from the NYC Health Department, the Fund for Public Health, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, NYC Health + Hospitals, the Mayor’s Office, VIP Community Services, Fountain House, Fountain House Gallery, Citiview Connections Clubhouse, Bronx Community Board 6, and Manhattan Community Board 4.
About the Artists
Tova Snyder received a Master of Fine Arts from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Her work includes public and commercial murals, fresco painting and restoration. Her largest piece of public art is a six-story mural off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
Andrew Frank Baer studied fine art at Brooklyn College. His work has been shown in galleries in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and he has painted large murals in New York City.

“Evolutions of Us”: An Art Exhibition

“Evolutions of Us”: An Art Exhibition
By Laura Anne Walker
Making Art After the Fall of HAI

2016 was a difficult year for many people, especially because of the presidential race. In addition to the political atmosphere, those of us who attended the Healing Arts Initiative (HAI) Art Studio (created by Francis Palazzolo and directed by him from 1994 to 2016) lost the Art Studio and HAI, which went out of business. Many people, including staff and participants, were displaced. Palazzolo took that devastating loss as a magnificent opportunity to charge forward, fill the void, and create Being Neighborly, an independent art collective, comprised of former HAI Art Studio members and new artists as well. Ever hopeful, Palazzolo has kept it together for us and has given it to us to be active participants in Being Neighborly: We each contribute our gifts, talents, resources, connections, and time.
The Being Neighborly art collective has already had two exhibitions in its short existence: “Bring da Beach ta’da Hood” at the Open Source Gallery; and the recent exhibition, “Evolutions of Us,” at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in collaboration with the SVA MPS Art Therapy Department, interns, students and staff at 132 West 21st Street, 5th floor Studio, by appointment. 
The opening reception for Evolutions of Us was on Saturday, February 18, from 2:30-4:00PM, and was well attended. The artists in the exhibit were: Jenny Chan, Michael Johnson, El Kuumba, Ray Lopez, Linda Moses, Girl Negron, Georgia Redd, Aracelis Rivera, Vincent Salas, Cynthia Timms, Laura Anne Walker (myself), and Lawrence Willoughby. A number of us spoke about our art.
I read my original poetry from my art, and spoke about the content, which explores my journey from psychiatric hospitalization to stabilization and how I came to terms with the diagnoses I’ve been labeled. Others spoke spontaneously. For example, Cynthia Timms described her love-letter artwork to Rosa Parks and, in doing so, tried to put herself in Rosa's shoes, hoping that she would have had the same courage as Parks on that bus. El Kuumba spoke of his paintings, one of which had both Mr. and Mrs. Obama, and Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Martin Luther King in the same painting. Ray Lopez spoke of his work, which is often provocative and controversial. Vincent Salas talked of the Shamans in his work and other themes. He also played a hand-beaten drum, which he invited others to play with him. Lawrence Willoughby spoke of his paintings, which depict everyday scenes in the city, such as the New York City skyline, and an MTA bus. Speaking about art is an exciting new feature of the exhibitions. Having a supportive, art-loving audience continues to be an amazing experience.
The MPS Art Therapy Students, led by Supervising Art Therapist, Sheila Fontanive, LCAT, are: Yi-Chien Chang, Saeideh Goiji, Laura Hetzel, RJ Huguenard, Andrea Juliano, Rebecca Rodas, and Gabby Simpson. They creatively helped us to get to the point of exhibition. The entire staff was overseen by Special Projects Coordinator Val Sereno, LCAT ATR-BC, who, overall, was instrumental in assisting us to put on this exhibition. We thank them.
We have coverage on the SVA blog: and in a press release. On Facebook, search “Being Neighborly.” If you want more, you can view profiles, spread the word, and help us reach our goals at

Expressing Emotion and Experience

Expressing Emotion and Experience
By Lisa Roma and Reginald True Coleman
The “Evolutions of Us” Art Exhibit

Have you ever come across a piece of jewelry that caught your eye, and as you looked closer there was one thing about it that sold you? Then, after having it for some time, it seemed to be more attractive the longer you owned it. That is one way to describe the “Evolutions of Us” art exhibit. When we walked into the room we knew we had stumbled upon a jewel. But the longer we stayed the more interesting it became.
It was a mild winter day, Saturday, February 18th when we arrived. The brightly lit walls of the ample sized gallery were lined with quite a variety of art styles. The space was filled with guests and exhibitors. A spread of refreshments covered a table near one corner of the large square room at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) 5th floor gallery located at 321 West 21st Street in Manhattan. The exhibit featured the work of 12 artists, five of whom spoke.
Viewers listened intently while various artists stood in front of their respective exhibits and shared what their artwork meant to them and why they created it. Several exhibitors voiced how creating their art helped them to express their feelings and experience some level of healing. Others chose to express a political point of view. 
The artwork covered a range of topics. Some of the paintings were photo-realistic portraits, while others were surreal. Some combined retouched photographs with typed words. One artist combined dream-images that he described while beating an African hand drum. Some artists included controversial political content while other described their art as being an extension of their mental health journey.
Laura Anne Walker, the event’s host, opened the exhibit with a reading of her poetry before discussing her art, whose colorful drawings were prominently displayed. Her eloquent poetry and art spoke about her experiences with hospitalization and recovery. 
Guest viewer Steph Walker shared the words of photo-realistic artist El Kuumba: “He said he uses his artwork to express his pain, and that’s how he processes his pain. It also helps him connect to who he is.” 
Artist Cynthia Timms spoke about her art project, which revolves around her letter to Rosa Parks, and said she believes “in art and activism. What can I do as an artist, as a writer, as a citizen, as a woman, as a black woman?” Vincent Salas, whose art expressed his spiritual and shamanic phase, also played an African hand drum during his talk, explaining how he added paper from his prescription drugs as a background to some of his art. Artist Ray Lopez spoke of the controversial and political views expressed in his work. Artist Lawrence Willoughby talked about his New York City painting. The other artists whose work was displayed, but who did not speak, were: Jenny Chan, Michael Johnson, Linda Moses, Girl Negron, Georgia Redd and Aracelis Rivera. 
The “Evolutions of Us” art exhibit was curated by Being Neighborly, a not for profit organization, in collaboration with The School of Visual Arts art therapy program. Being Neighborly is directed by artist Francis Palazzolo, who formerly created and directed the HAI Art Studio. 

My Mental Health Journey: Mirroring Success Through the Eyes of a Relationship

My Mental Health Journey: Mirroring Success Through the Eyes of a Relationship
A Column by J. Alfreda
Success is Obtained by Letting Go of the Toxic Pieces
Our relationship has been strained at best, a really rocky road. It’s a love/hate relationship that borders on psychosis. But, in the final analysis, I am the one who knows her best. She is the closest person to me. She is me.
There was a pouring of rain on our already strained relationship. You see, I have schizophrenia, bipolar type, which onset at age 20. Many voices and much pain have infiltrated my mind over the past 35 years. I have just arrived at a place of readiness to accept this illness as mine.
You might possibly think it’s strange that it took me so long, but I have always thought of my illness as another entity, an alter-ego, an arch nemesis. I refused to see myself as a whole person. My war had an enemy though I couldn’t see that the enemy was unintentionally me. Success would start with forging my “selves” and attaining as much peace as possible. 
Schizophrenia is a different realm of reality. You realize what you go through intermittently. But, when you are there, it is real. It is marked by delusions, extreme paranoia, suicidal thoughts, steep highs and lulls of depression in my case.
In the beginning, it was like having my life, mind and soul hollowed out and strewn across the four corners of the Earth in scraps, feeling like I had to travel to each site and retrieve them piece by piece in a zombie state. The disease alienates you from yourself.
Schizophrenia is a useless, evil being who can’t stand in a church for fear of bursting into flames. It is a pimp that bids actions contrary to your will, turning you inside-out. That is, until you fix it.
I walked around in this nightmarish, delusional state for 24 years before a medication was created that I would respond to and not put me in the conveyor-belt-shuffle-mode.
When I was 20, I was sure that by now I would have an engineering firm, a great home, kids, and the whole nine yards, but that hasn’t been in the plan for me. I have barely been able to take care of myself. I did manage to finish college, though on the revolving door plan; one quarter in school, the next in the hospital and so on. I changed my major from chemical engineering to journalism because after the first break, with the tranquilizers I was taking (that was all they had for schizophrenia back then), I found I could not comprehend my coursework anymore. I was in my junior year before the break.
You can imagine why I would rebel against this entity. It has undermined my every opportunity and effort to gain success, but it is a part of me and I have resolved to make myself whole.
After some soul-searching prompts, my first stop was in the gratitude market. You can’t ask the Universe for more without thanking It for what you already have. It just wouldn’t be polite. I bought a gratitude journal in which I write daily those things I am grateful for: past, present and future.
The little things that I appreciate and make me happy fascinate me the most. In my first entry I always thank God for “waking me up this morning clothed in my right mind,” a phrase my grandfather used to say in his prayers, which has taken on a new meaning for me. You can guess why.
I’ve also created a gratitude board somewhat akin to a vision board, visually celebrating all of the things that make me happy, appreciative and that I am thankful for. It has things as frivolous as vintage clothing and jewelry, as marvelous as a multi-hued sunset or a cobalt night sky, and as welcoming as family and all that it entails. It helps me to embrace the positives of my life.
Some would say I lost everything in the deal. It may seem that way from one perspective if viewing my past, but it is far from the truth. In picking up the pieces for the umpteenth time, I discovered me, the whole of myself. I am coming from a natural place, a place of gratitude and love─not someone else’s definition of who I am, or even who I think I am; it is a place of true character.
My true character has been revealed by letting go of the toxic pieces and embracing the positive aspects of my true self. This is how I define success.

The Healing Art of The Memoir

The Healing Art of The Memoir
By Ayesha 
Writing My Personal Story Has Been a Cleansing Experience
I want to write about how cleansing it was for me to write a 3,000-3,500-word personal narrative. This memoir is the beginning of what I hope will become a book-length personal narrative. I like to think of the benefits that I get from writing personal narrative as “narrative therapy.”
When I write about my experiences as an African American woman living with schizophrenia, I am writing my story which began twenty years ago. I have made progress simply by sharing my story with others. As I read the first two pages of my narrative with students and alumni at Memoirfest—a memoir-reading party that Dr. Giunta, the memoir class professor, holds every May and December at her house in Teaneck, New Jersey—I was being bolder than I have ever been before.
I have written personal essays and narratives that I have shared in safe spaces, but never as part of a college-level workshop or at a gathering of students as I did at Memoirfest. I felt so good after sharing the first two pages of my memoir with everyone and getting their positive feedback. One student told me she really enjoyed my piece, which I shared with her just before she left at the end of the night. She was doing her honors thesis and, although I cannot remember her name, her comment meant a lot to me. 
The first class that I shared my life experience as an African American woman with schizophrenia was English Composition II while doing research in the Guarni library for our final research paper; Dr. Alina Gharabegian was my instructor.
I had been encouraged by Dr. Hamburger to take ECI and ECII at the university level. I took the Advanced Creative Writing Workshop with him and did not do well, barely passing the course. Dr. Hamburger encouraged me to repeat ECI and ECII, which I did to improve my writing skills. 
Dr. Gharabegian had assigned the class a five- to seven-page research paper on the broad topic of love. We could approach the assignment in any way we liked. In her comments on my proposal, Dr. Gharabegian suggested that I write about schizophrenia and love. I felt like someone was opening a door for me. I was surprised by her suggestion, but also thrilled. I had not yet written a paper about my personal experiences with schizophrenia during my time at New Jersey City University. 
I was happy to be taking Memoir Workshop with Dr. Giunta, who taught me to avoid writing my story as a chronology or autobiography. When I nailed voice, it was like church bells were ringing at that moment, and I felt so accomplished, mature and independent. I am so glad I took Memoir Workshop and then Advanced Memoir Workshop during the spring of 2015. I graduated from NJCU in August 2015 with a BA in Creative Writing. 
I am fond of NJCU because of my experience in Dr. Giunta’s class. She was an amazing, supportive, caring and sweet person as well as a great teacher. I feel such an overwhelming debt of gratitude to her. I never thought I would have such an experience with a professor or as part of a class. It had such an amazing impact on me and on my life.
Now I am back at NJCU majoring in Early Childhood Education. I feel more a part of the university's community now than when I began in the fall of 2007. 

Soulful Connections

Soulful Connections
A Column by Relda Hill
Cultivating the Inner Voice
I have been hearing a lot recently about people who hear voices and how disruptive these voices can be. I want to say that I have empathy for these individuals and I validate their daily struggle to deal with this mental health condition. However, there is another voice that exists in each of us that does not get much attention. To be clear, this voice is called the inner voice. This voice is not a pathology; it represents the inner child at the core of our being. I have found in my spiritual practice that this inner voice can lead me through any distress that I may be feeling. In this article I will discuss my struggle to hear my inner voice and how I achieved peace and wholeness by listening to it. 
Throughout the last 25 years, I have done a lot of research on spiritual practices. I was raised as a Christian, but when I reached adolescence Christianity no longer worked for me. I do not relate well to a God that deals with black and white rules and who does not have a sense of humor. In addition, since I had poor boundaries in the past I did not know where I began or ended. I was like an open book and anyone could write on the pages of my soul and mind. Moreover, since I was sensitive, I found that people really did not have to say anything to me. I was able to pick up their negative energies and I made the erroneous assumption that the feelings and energies of others were my feelings and energies. Sadly, my authentic self got lost in the struggle to gain my identity as Relda. 
As the years passed, I developed a lot of “chatter” in my head. I define “chatter” as white noise. This white noise made it difficult for me to connect to the inner child in me and to my inner voice. For instance, when I was in the throes of a deep depression, my inner voice was my worst critic. I entertained thoughts like “You don’t deserve to live,” which caused me great distress. I felt that I did not deserve to live and I was very judgmental with my Self. This judgmental part of me caused me to act out in self-defeating ways. I nearly lost my life to this harsh inner critic. 
One might ask “Why should I seek out the inner voice when it can be my own worst critic?” I believe that it is important to seek out the inner voice even if what I discover is harsh, negative criticism. I know that when I listen to the negativity that is contained within me that I can very slowly begin to change it. When I become aware of what is rotting within me, I am given the opportunity to liberate my soul. In simpler terms, I have a choice. I can either succumb to the negative talk or I can learn to transform it. Transformation occurs for me when I “starve” this negative energy by engaging in some positive activity like exercise, doing artwork, singing, cleaning my apartment or any other kind of positive activity. In my experience, I have found it worth my while to dig up toxic, old tapes so that I can face them and symbolically discard them. Whenever I engage in transformative activities, I am building positive, self-esteem. My salvation is not in medication but in meditation! Let’s be clear, I am not advocating that peers come off their medication, I am stating that meditation can be an instrument that leads to wholeness and healing.
Luckily, I have a persevering spirit and I began to read spiritual books and magazines. In addition, I went on retreats, entered therapy and spoke to many people who had similar struggles. Fortunately, I was able to find the strength to meditate even if it was only for short periods. I learned about techniques that helped me to understand cognitive distortions and how they distorted my world. I also learned that many of my reactions were based on traumas that I had endured during my life. 
As my meditation practice grew stronger, I was able to hear my inner voice. This small voice inside of me became calm and periods of upheaval lessened. I discovered through meditation that I am able to get to the bottom of any problem. I was able to reach the “still” part of me. From this serene space, I began to heal. The “internal offender” or the “harsh inner critic” are still a part of my psyche, but they do not run my life. My ability to hear my truth from my inner voice strengthened me. I am not suggesting that I do not need other people in my life; I still choose to work with a therapist. However, I am not as dependent on others as I used to be. Simply put, I have learned to bear my own burdens.
For those brave souls who want to find their inner voice, I can offer a few tips. You can begin this journey by creating a sacred space for yourself in your home. You can decorate the space with pictures of a spiritual leader or decorate your space with meaningful, universal symbols. Some people like to have a jar of water to represent spirit and others use incense to purify the air. Also, you can use flowers or green leaves to represent life and eternity. After this sacred space has been created, you can sit on a chair or sit on the ground. Do only what works for you. There is an abundance of books that will give you more ideas on how to create sacred space. Observe your breath and make sure that it is calm and steady. 
As you begin to do the practice diligently you will begin to move past the chatter of the “monkey mind” and find your inner voice. You will begin to get in touch with the part of you that has never been violated. Your inner voice will make itself heard and you will eventually feel calmness and a deep peace. Deep in your soul you will know that you have achieved something special that will be your guide through the rest of your life.

Bruni in the City: Number 100 is on His Way

Bruni in the City: Number 100 is on His Way
A Column by Christina Bruni
I Fell for a Pinhead
Readers: I broke the cardinal rule of dating.
Years ago, a woman gave me a psychic reading in her apartment on the waterfront in Sheepshead Bay. She told me: “Don’t throw yourself at a guy. Remember: you’re a diamond, not a rhinestone.”
Diamond, my ass. My brilliance hasn’t attracted a guy to me.
So, my curiosity got the better of me. I threw down a challenge to T.—the guy I have pined for since 2016—and sent him a short e-mail in these exact words: “I realize you don’t like me and that’s okay.” The cardinal sin. Then:
“You keep talking about your numerous ex-girlfriends. I’m a woman with a photogenic face and skinny body and I can’t get one guy to go on one date with me. What’s your secret?”
Since he was “date bait” himself with striking good looks and a kind heart, couldn’t he spare a few alluring ideas about how I could reel a guy in? Couldn’t he tell me this as one great friend to another? I clicked send on the e-mail and shut down my computer for the night. 
T. responded: “Most romances are played badly just on the surface level. Even the ones where people are happier are adolescent. Are you at the library this week? We can talk then.”
I responded to T: “Yes, I do attract guys—what a psychic called ‘turkeys.’ Like the guy with the screen name sexywomanneeded—adolescent indeed. How is a guy going to get a woman if he frames it in terms of what she can give him not what he can give her?”
Then I told T.: “I’m not going to wear a cleavage-bearing mini dress, yet apparently, that’s some guy’s sole criteria for a love match.”
Our conversation quickly sidestepped that he was the first guy I was madly and physically attracted to. He had conveniently deflected any reference to my comment that he didn’t like me.
That Sunday was the first time in my life that I ever felt like something was wrong with me. Having a diagnosis of schizophrenia doesn’t upset me and hasn’t upset me for decades. It only crushed me to know that a kind, sensitive and intelligent guy like T. didn’t like a kind and compassionate and elegant lady like me. 
“Pinhead!” I wanted to tell him. “By all means go out and get another chick that will treat you like shit all over again. Get going—Number 100 is on his way to me.”
It’s over—partly because T. has moved to Austin, TX where he found a job.
T. and I were a photogenic item out in public. I was confident people thought we were a romantic item. Thus, when we appeared together I wanted to wear a tee-shirt that proclaimed: He’s Not My Boyfriend. Try Your Luck.
The ending with T. reminded me of the Donna Summer song, lyrics about the cake left out in the rain. It took so long to bake the budding romance with him and I won’t ever have this recipe again either. The cake’s been soaked. That’s all there is to it.
On some days, I still pine for a guy. On other days, I’m happy to be alone. I miss the cake frosting.

Supplemental Needs Trusts and Government Benefits

Supplemental Needs Trusts and Government Benefits
By Joe Rosenberg, Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law
What You Need to Know
Who Needs a Supplemental Needs Trust?
·         Miguel is 50-years-old and receives SSI, Medicaid, and SNAP (Food Stamps). Miguel is about to receive a $50,000 settlement from a discrimination lawsuit against a former employer who fired Miguel after the employer learned he had schizophrenia.
·         Sonja is 35-years-old and suffers from depression. She receives SSI, Medicaid, and a Section 8 housing subsidy. Sonja’s mother died recently, and left a will that gives Sonja $100,000.
·         Ella is 60 years old and became eligible for Social Security Disability due to mental health problems after many years of employment. Ella receives Medicare, but now needs a level of home care that is available from Medicaid. Ella is not eligible for Medicaid because she has excess monthly income above the Medicaid level.
These are a few examples of when a supplemental needs trust (“SNT”) can be used by a person who receives government benefits:
·         If Miguel transfers his settlement money into an SNT, he will remain eligible for SSI and Medicaid. Miguel will also be eligible for SNAP, whether or not he uses an SNT, because in New York, SNAP does not count a person’s assets.
·         If Sonja transfers her inheritance money into an SNT, she will remain eligible for SSI and Medicaid. Sonja will be able to keep her Section 8 benefit, but may have to pay a small monthly increase in rent.
·         Ella can transfer her “excess income” each month into a supplemental needs trust to satisfy her “spend down,” become eligible for Medicaid, and have the extra income used for her benefit by the trustee.
How Does the SNT Work?
The trustee manages the trust, which directs how distributions are made to improve the beneficiary’s quality of life. The trustee usually makes payments directly to providers of goods and services to the beneficiary. The trust is used to pay for basic needs not covered by government benefits and anything else that will improve the beneficiary’s quality of life (for example, “extra” health care, housing, travel, personal care, computers, and education).
The trustee does not make payments directly to the beneficiary. If the beneficiary needs services beyond what Medicaid covers, the trustee pays the provider directly. The SNT is not considered an “available” asset and the beneficiary maintains eligibility for government benefits.
If the trustee pays money directly to the beneficiary, it would be counted as income, which might affect the beneficiary’s eligibility for government benefits.
What is the Difference Between “Pooled” & “Individual SNTs?
There are two main SNT “structures”:
·         A “pooled” SNT is for people with disabilities of any age. A nonprofit organization establishes and manages the trust. Each beneficiary has an account within the “master” pooled trust.
·         An “individual” SNT is limited to people with disabilities under age 65. An individual trust document must be drafted. Unlike the pooled SNT, a responsible person or bank/trust company must be selected to serve as trustee.
Who Funds the SNT? “Self-Settled” & “Third Party” SNTs
There are two main types of SNTs:
·         A “self-settled” SNT is funded with money or property that is owned or controlled by the beneficiary (for example, a settlement from a lawsuit, or an inheritance). The beneficiary is considered to "own" the money that will fund the trust, so it is necessary to use a self-settled SNT. A transfer of money or property into the SNT does not create a “penalty period” of ineligibility for SSI or Medicaid, unless the beneficiary is over 65 and applies for Medicaid nursing home coverage within 60 months of the transfer.
·         A self-settled SNT can be created by the beneficiary (if the person has enough decision-making capacity), or by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian, or a court.
·         A “third party” SNT is funded with money or property from someone other than the beneficiary (for example, a family member or friend). The beneficiary does not own the money used to fund the trust. A parent creates a third party SNT when the parent includes the SNT in a will that takes effect when the parent dies.
Is There a Medicaid “Pay Back” from the SNT Remainder?
With an individual “self-settled” SNT, there is a required “pay back” to Medicaid from any remaining assets when the beneficiary dies (up to the amount paid by Medicaid for the beneficiary). With a pooled SNT, there is an option to keep any remaining money in the pooled trust when the beneficiary dies, instead of the “pay back” to Medicaid.
A third party SNT, because a parent or other person (not the beneficiary) creates and funds the trust, does not have a required “pay back” to Medicaid. The creator of a third party SNT can choose who gets any remainder after the beneficiary dies.
Does a Person Need a Lawyer to Create the SNT?
I recommend that a person work with a lawyer, who should be able to explain options and help the client make informed decisions.
For example, a lawyer can help under the following circumstances:
·         A parent or grandparent is doing “estate planning” and wants to provide for a child or grandchild (or other relative or person), but does not want to cause the beneficiary to lose eligibility for government benefits.
·         A person receiving SSI and Medicaid inherits money from a relative or friend, or receives a lump sum settlement from a personal injury, discrimination, or other case, and needs to protect the money without losing the government benefits.
The cost of setting up an SNT will vary, depending on the amount of money involved, the type of SNT, and if a person needs to create a new SNT or can establish an account with a pooled SNT.
Private attorneys who specialize in Elder Law, Disability Law, or Wills, Trusts & Estates, may have the necessary expertise. A private attorney may charge anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 (or more) for an SNT.

Local legal aid, legal services, and bar associations may have referral services for pro bono or more affordable attorneys.