Wake County commissioners and staff had strong reactions Monday to accounts of substandard, taxpayer-financed housing for a man with a mental illness.
Elected officials called the situation a “horrible underbelly” and an embarrassment to the county, while administrators said they will begin to conduct inspections and screen for bad landlords.
Their discussion followed The News & Observer’s reporting on Sunday about Dontay Jones, a man diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who lives under the legal guardianship of Wake County.
Jones, 23, and another man lived through the winter in a house without a functioning heater, instead relying on the stove and, at times, space heaters. Wake County’s government holds ultimate power over Jones’ central life decisions, including housing.
“I was embarrassed by the article in the paper,” Commissioner John Burns said at a budget work session. “It is a disgrace that we do not have – whether it’s the staffing, the funding – the opportunity to merely inspect the homes of people that we are legally responsible for.”
Wake County has not required its guardians to visit residences before it places people with disabilities in them. In response to Jones’ story, the county has created a “checklist” that county staff or their representatives must complete in person at each residence.
“You have to go into the unit, walk the unit,” said David Ellis, deputy county manager. “We want to make sure that everyone has decent, safe and sanitary housing.”
The county has about 520 people under its guardianship, while affiliated private health providers oversee the lives of about 275 more people. For the county or another party to take over guardianship, the courts must have declared these people to be incompetent to make their own life decisions. Legal incompetency often results from mental illness or disabilities linked to age.
Of those under county care, about 100 live independently, as Jones did. Ellis believes Jones’ housing was “an isolated case” but said the county is checking into the quality of other wards’ current housing.
He could not say why Jones’ house wasn’t provided with heat. City inspectors had found that the cottage’s heating unit did not have gas service.
“I could not believe that they rented a house for a thousand dollars that did not have any heat,” said Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, noting how cold it was last winter.
“That will not be happening again,” Ellis replied. The county also will check with the city of Raleigh to see whether residences are in violation of city housing codes and whether a landlord’s other properties face serious violations.
Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said the county needs to persuade more landlords to accept individuals whose mental health issues may come with criminal records or credit issues.
“One way or another, we’re going to have to expand the availability of housing,” he said. The county will begin recruiting more landlords in the next six months to a year, Ellis said.
Commissioner Caroline Sullivan said the county faces a mental-health “crisis,” noting a recent surge in the number of people with mental illnesses placed in care by involuntary commitment procedures. Over the past five years, more than 300 people annually have been declared incompetent in Wake County.
“We will not be able to make this problem better without resources,” she said, saying she wanted to make a long-term effort to improve Wake’s resources for people with mental illnesses.
It is unclear whether any employee of Wake County will face punishment over Jones’ treatment.
“We will be handling it internally, and looking at the policies that were in place then and the policies that were put in place now,” Ellis said. “In the past, not going back to the specific case, folks were following … the guidance they had received from the state.”
The county now will look to surpass the state’s standards, he said.
“There’s a higher standard, particularly with our most vulnerable people, that we should have.”