Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Murder of a Shopping Bag Lady

The Murder of a Shopping Bag Lady by Brian Kates was published in1985. The homeless woman, Phyllis Iannotta, was beaten, stabbed, raped and killed in New York City on April 23, 1981. The sixty-seven year old woman's body was found in a parking lot in Hell's Kitchen. Phyllis was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia at age 52 which is unusual. Kates not only tells the story of how he tracked down Phyllis' pre-homeless identify and life, but also documents how deinstitutionalisation mental health facilities lead to an increase in homelessness.


Phyllis was a year-old when her mother took her on ship from Italy to the United States. Her husband saved money from construction labor to send money for their passage. That would be around the same time my grandfather was working as a laborer, saving money to send for  my grandmother and father to join him. My grandfather left NYC to stay with gumbas in New Jersey. Phyllis' father was a junk dealer pushing  a cart. along neighborhood streets in the Red Hook section of NYC, hawking his wares, picking up junk to fix or sell (scrape metal and such.)

Interesting to me is a 1898 daily wage schedule for workmen builing the Corotn Reservoir:

Common Labor, white ---$1.30 to $1.50
Common Labor, colored--$1.25 to $1.40
Common Labor, Italian---$1.15 to $1.25

A 1969 U.S. Census Bureau study showed that 27.6 percent of the Italian-American respondents over age thrity-five had completed high school. My father would have been among them if included in the study. Kates speaks of it as a cultural thing, females especially needed to be educated at home learning how to be good wives and mothers; boys needed to go to work to help support the family.

My father said his father told him he had to quit school after Junior High because High School cost money. He needed to work to help support the family. My father became a self-educated man and proud of it. His mother went to night school, but not for a high school diploma.

Phyllis never married, she left school at 16 to work and help support her family. As her parents aged, she became the sole bread winner. Her only brother, Phillip, was a troublesome youth, spending time in juvenille facilities, graduating to jails and prisons. Phyllis took care of him also. He became a drunk, street person, but did stay at a bookstore/peep show dressing room in exhange for light janitorial duties. Running errands for the ladies earned him "tips" so he could keep himself drinking at a local pub.

In 1981, "the city signed a legal paper agreeing to 'provide shelter and board to each homeless man who applies for it.' The decress prohibited overcrowding..." (and so on), but "specified only men, and the city actually went to court to defend its right not to meet the same standards for women." Oh, my.

"...instead of shifting funds from the emptying hospitals into programs designed to aid discharged patients, state mental health departments continued to spend the money in the institutions. In New York...only 20 percent of the mentally ill were being treated in hospitals, but 80 percent of the mental health budget continued to be spent on institutions."

That "was not primarily a medical decision but a political one orchestrated in large part by powerful Unions seeking to save jobs that would be lost if mental hospitals closed...".

The idea to empty mental hospitals, stabilizing patients in regular hospitals, then sending them home, or back to the streets in the case of those without homes, to continue treatment in outpatient clinics did not work out too well. Released mentally ill people simply swelled the number of homeless people, not just in NYC, but across the nation.

Citizens protested opening of homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. Mayor Koch said it was over his dead body that such facilities would be located in areas where decent citizens lived and worked. He likened it to "spreading cancers" throughout NYC.

Public Housing: The number of people needing low-rent apartments skyrocketed int he 1960s and 1970s and peaked during the recession of 1974 and 1975." "The New York City Housing Authority had a waiting list of more than 170,000 families, many of whom were told they would probably have to wait fifteen years or more for an apartment." And in the meantime?

"For the homeless there was a special Catch 22---just to get on the list for an apartment, an applicant had to give their address."

Times have changed, yet most of the situations regarding homelessness, poverty and mental illness remains the same. Phyllis, for instance, was denied Disability from Social Security, despite having paid into the system and certification from psychiatrists that she was unfit to work. They told her to try "welfare" ~ let someone else pay for her, to save the agency funding.

The welfare money did keep Phyllis in a motel room for a while, until rent was raised, and she was back on the streets. When she was finally approved for Disability or Retirement income from Social Security, the same thing happened at an SRO where she resided. Rents raised just as her payment amount was reduced.

I do not know a solution to the problem of caring for mentally ill homeless people. Citizens balk about their tax dollars going to help the poor. They think homeless people are lazy, bums who do not want to work, never realizing that many of them, were once contributing members of society, paying into the system that makes them feel like crap when they apply for aid.

Yes, many homeless are addicts, alcoholics, or criminals, some do milk the system, yet many veterans became addicted to drugs or alcohol due to service to their country. Homelessness is a complex problem, not easily solved except through government funded programs that work.




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