They Need a Voice

My friend Wallace had big plans to go into broadcasting.  He was smart and charming and had a beautiful voice.  Most of all, he had a passion for the work.  But when he was in college, he developed serious mental illness.  The drugs he was given dulled his thinking, flattened his enthusiasm, and even worse, destroyed his voice.  He would never go into broadcasting, nor would he even be able to finish college.   So many things fell apart for him as the years went on.  Now Wallace lives in a dilapidated old facility in Richmond, known euphemistically as an “assisted living facility.”

At this “home,” residents are crammed three and four to a bedroom.  When I have visited, the refrigerator is empty, the bugs scamper away from me, the smell catches me by surprise.  This kind of “home” is the only option offered to many poor Virginians with mental illness, who turn over their social security checks to the home in exchange for deplorable living conditions.

Virginia has been taking steps, although very tiny steps, to try to address some of the shameful conditions in these particular kinds of “assisted living facilities.”  For example, this year the General Assembly is considering measures that would increase overnight staffing so as to be able to assist in the event of a fire or other emergency.

But sadly, the General Assembly is also considering a bill that would allow these “assisted living facilities” to increase the number of people that they cram into one bedroom.  The Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services approved the measure on Friday.

This proposal is a horrible step backwards.  For the last decade, regulations for these facilities have tried to ease the overcrowded conditions, gradually over time.   For example, all buildings built after 2006 can have no more than two people per bedroom.  Any building that gets a new license after February 2018, can place no more than two people per bedroom.   It makes sense to have this requirement, as many of these residents are struggling with serious mental health issues that are only exacerbated by overcrowding.  These regulations allow for a gradual downsizing of “assisted living facilities.”  Too slowly for us at dLCV, but at least it is headed in the right direction.

The measure before the legislature would pull the rug out from under this gradual movement towards improved conditions.    It would allow any facility in operation as of 2018 to continue to have as many people in one room as they wish.

The measure is being promoted by Senator Jennifer McClellan, who says she is doing so on behalf of property owners who cannot turn a profit without cramming multiple people into small bedrooms.  Senator McClellan is usually a champion for the disenfranchised, so her allegiance on behalf of property owners is especially distressing.  dLCV has invited Senator McClellan to visit some of the “homes” with us, so she can see the effect the bill would have on her constituents who live there.  So far, she has declined the offer.    We hope she will reconsider, so that Wallace, and everyone else living in these horrible conditions, might find a voice in the General Assembly.

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