Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Thu, 08 Aug 2002 19:43:15 -0400

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You need to read between the lines on this one.

Mentally Ill Boy Kills Himself in Shelter Hotel

Everyone knew Jason-Eric Wilson was a boy with troubles and a troubled mind.

His depression and anxiety, which first emerged in seventh grade, grew much
worse last year, as his family moved from one relative to the next after
eviction from their Brooklyn home. Within the past 10 months, he was
hospitalized twice for mental illness.

But in the last two weeks, Jason's troubles were compounded as his family
turned to the city for shelter. With his father and his 10-year-old sister,
Lani, Jason was bounced between temporary shelter rooms and the crammed
Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, where he had to sleep on the floor
through the night.

On Monday, Jason, 16, killed himself, swallowing every pill he could find
in the family's Harlem shelter hotel room, including his own psychotropic

Court decrees require a quick shelter placement for medically fragile
families. In the Wilson family's case, a city nurse listed Mr. Wilson's
leukemia and bone marrow transplant and Jason's psychiatric history on a
screening form that identifies the most vulnerable families so that they be
given priority for shelter.

Yesterday, Linda I. Gibbs, the city's commissioner of homeless services,
promised a full investigation. "The question is whether this system could
have done a better job," she said, "because this is obviously a great
tragedy and a terrible loss for this family."

There is no way to know why any teenager takes his own life, and Jason's
psychiatric history and troubled background alone were a combustible mix.
But to Jason's father, Eric Wilson, there is little doubt what drove his
son to kill himself.

"My son committed suicide because we were being threatened with being sent
back there, to the E.A.U.," he said, weeping as he recalled his son's
reaction to returning to the Emergency Assistance Unit, the city office
where homeless families apply for shelter and where families often end up
spending the night.

The Wilsons went to the Emergency Assistance Unit to seek shelter on July
25, and there a city nurse noted on the screening form that Jason was
suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Attached were several letters from a
Payne Whitney Clinic psychiatrist, Dr. Reemon Bishara, who had been
treating Jason. The most recent letter, dated July 19, warned that Jason's
emotional health was deteriorating because of "environmental instability,
including threats of homelessness and poverty."

The father said the family had to wait until the wee hours to be seen, and
the Wilsons were not bused to beds at the Powers shelter in the Bronx until
4 a.m. on July 26. By 6 a.m., they were sent back to the Emergency
Assistance Unit to reapply for shelter, Mr. Wilson said.

Leaving families overnight in the unit is illegal, and Justice Helen E.
Freedman of State Supreme Court in Manhattan had repeatedly ordered the
city to stop the practice. But like many other homeless children and
parents, Jason, Lani and Mr. Wilson were left to spend the night on the
floors and benches there on July 26.

"It was dirty, it was noisy," Jason's younger sister recalled yesterday.
"There were children running around. There were people cursing and

The city has said it is trying to ease the bottleneck in the shelter system
so that families are not left to stay the night in the Bronx office, but
officials say it is faced with record numbers of homeless people.

"We're continuing to work as aggressively as we possibly can to meet this
unprecedented demand," Ms. Gibbs said.

The city's Administration for Children's Services was also aware of the
family's plight.

"The best place for the child was not a homeless shelter," Kathleen Walsh,
a spokeswoman, said yesterday, adding that a caseworker had interviewed the
family several times between July 15 and July 25, but did not consider
removal of the children the answer.

"Being homeless does not mean that you're abusing or neglecting your
children," she said. "You grieve for the family and you grieve for a father
where he's just trying to do the best that he can for a child."

On July 27, the Wilsons were sent to the shelter hotel in Harlem for a
10-day conditional stay while the city investigated whether they were truly
homeless. With no money for food, Mr. Wilson, who said he has been unable
to work since his bone marrow transplant in 2000, applied for emergency
food stamps at a welfare center on July 30, but was denied, a city document

"Eligibility could not be determined without additional documentation," a
caseworker wrote in explanation.

Missing documentation was also the obstacle to finding the Wilsons eligible
for shelter, Ms. Gibbs said. Homeless services officials required that the
father supply the children's birth certificates and documentation that he
had legal custody.

"When we lost our apartment, we lost everything," Mr. Wilson said,
describing how the family's possessions were thrown out during eviction
from the apartment in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, where they had lived
for 14 years.

On Sunday night, he said, he was summoned from the hotel to the Bronx unit
with his children and told that they would be found ineligible for shelter
unless he supplied documents by 5:30 p.m. the next day. An appointment
form, with the notation "you must provide documents to prove legal
custody," corroborates his account.

Mr. Wilson said the family spent most of Monday trying to gather documents
to satisfy the authorities =97 applying for new Social Security cards for=
children and seeking 1993 records in Brooklyn Family Court that show his
custody of the children. Despite the efforts of a sympathetic clerk, the
records could not be retrieved from storage until Tuesday. "Jason
panicked," Mr. Wilson said. "He said, `Dad, what are we going to do?' "

The family sought help from the Legal Aid Society, Mr. Wilson said, and a
lawyer called the homeless services office to insist that the Wilsons be
allowed to stay in the hotel. The city maintains that even before the
lawyers' intervention, the family was placed on administrative hold, and
would not have been ejected Monday night.

Shortly before 4 p.m., Jason's father found him lying on one of the three
beds in the shelter room, with empty medicine bottles all around. Within
minutes, he was in convulsions, and when his father tried to get him to the
hospital after calls for an ambulance, Jason collapsed in the street.

Yesterday at the Dawn Hotel, where the family had been placed, Jason's blue
backpack was still crammed with books looking to the future: "Careers in
Medicine," "How to Survive Nursing School" and novels about boys who made
it through hard times.

"He was a wonderful boy," Mr. Wilson said, recalling his son as a sensitive
child and sometimes brilliant student who had wanted to become a
psychiatric nurse.=20