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Charlotte Amalie
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Community Turns a Blind Eye to the Mentally Ill

ug. 23, 2007 — For as long as I can remember I have been especially sensitive to societal injustices. Since I came to the Virgin Islands I have written many ‘intellectual outrage’ pieces. But until the last few weeks I have not mustered the intense passion that I used to spew forth when battling the windmills of the community. My New York City students would tell you that ‘Ms Carol ain’t even gettin’ warm yet.’
Apparently that was the calm before the storm just waiting for the right cause. The fervor has now been revived. The story I’m about to tell, has me vexed to the max, furious beyond words and in pain to my core.
About three months ago the people in my neighborhood became aware of a rather strange woman who is living in a vacant house below mine. Slowly we realized that the apartment has no power, that we have never seen anyone bringing her food or visiting, that she has no transportation and has been wearing the same clothing for all this time.
We don’t know what she is eating beside our occasional donations. We don’t know whether she has running water and toilet facilities. She certainly has no lights or fans or even a radio or TV. We don’t know the condition of the place she is living because we don’t have the right to go barging into her space. We don’t know whether garbage is piling up, whether she has a way to cook or refrigeration or even a bed to sleep in.
One neighbor called the owner of the house who claimed she had no idea who that woman was and promised to investigate; she never came. The police were called – they said they could do nothing. The owner then claimed that she had filed the papers to have the marshals put the woman out; the marshals never came. The department of mental health was called and they promised to call back when they found out who the woman was; they never called. When the owner’s son came to repair a deck board he didn’t make any effort to check on the woman -obviously he knew who she was.
The real tragedy of this whole story is that this poor woman is the sister of the owner of the house, who would prefer to deny knowing her. How could the sister continue to lie in this small community where everyone knows everything? Apparently the woman was too much of a nuisance in her sister’s residence downtown, so she has been ‘dumped’ here with no facilities, no food, no care and probably no medication for her obvious disease. Are they hoping she will die?
What does this woman do to run up the red flag? Well, she appears to have been badly beaten on more than one occasion so she’s not real pretty. Sometimes she is not appropriately dressed. She does argue with voices that only she can hear. She bangs her mop and sings in the middle of the night. She trims the bushes all around with scissors, leaving the debris in the road. She walks to the end of the lane and back. She throws stones at the neighbor’s dogs when they bark at her. She puts neat bags of trash out by the road. If you say ‘Good morning’ to her, she responds most of the time but without eye contact. She will take donations of food from some people. She does not appear to be violent or self-destructive. She hides when people come around.
There are different reactions to her living here. I feel she is a victim of abuse; pathetic and worthy of our help and sympathy. Her condition and circumstances are not her fault. Some of the neighbors are happy just to talk about the strange woman without action; while others take food and try to be nice to her. One man sends his dogs to harass her and has made her removal his purpose for existing. He seems to be confused about who the victim is or maybe he thinks if he makes her life even more miserable she will grow wings and fly away.
In this community it is a stigma to have a relative who is mentally ill. I could feel sorry for the family who has had to deal with her illness for many years if I saw power in that apartment and regular food deliveries, and a nephew who exhibited five minutes of concern for her.
It is a disruptive nuisance to have a neighbor who is mentally ill. I could empathize if I didn’t see him purposely sending the dogs to harass her and constantly watching her when her only ‘crime’ is trimming leaves with a pair of scissors.
Mental health has limited resources and in this case can’t even find the name of the woman as long as her sister denies knowing her. I would understand if they would make a site visit to check on her conditions. A new director of Mental Health needs to be appointed by someone so policies can be improved, staff increased and facilities created.
Mental illness is a major problem in this community and the government chooses not to make it a priority, claiming lack of funds, but in my fury I can’t find any reasons for the community’s ignorant attitudes to dominate when the responsibility of good leadership is to raise the level of civility and improve the quality of all of our lives. Continued silence on this priority issue will not diminish my outrage.

Editor's note: Carol Lotz-Felix, a resident of St. Thomas, is an educator and writer of social commentary. Her community activities include mentoring teen-agers, distributing used books and reading in day care centers.
Editors note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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