Skip to content

‘Please Help’: The Search for a Mentally Ill Brother in Brooklyn 34 years old Birshon Daley

September 6, 2015

Cases like these are far too common  William Anthony Ayers comes to mind who is the principal hero of the book, “The Soloist.”

‘Please Help’: The Search for a Mentally Ill Brother in Brooklyn

Ever since they were children, Aukejshia Boyce-Gaskins made sure to look out for her younger half brother, Birshon Daley.

Their mother, addicted to crack cocaine, dumped them with their great-grandmother when Ms. Boyce-Gaskins was 10 and her brother was 2. Ms. Boyce-Gaskins helped raise Mr. Daley in a small town in Georgia, even taking him in after she graduated from high school. Eventually, she sent him to live with his father in Brooklyn. But then came a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. His father died. Almost three years ago, he disappeared.

His sister was frantic. Was he on the streets? In a homeless shelter? In a mental hospital? She asked a relative to check Mr. Daley’s old haunts, like the barbershop where he used to sweep for spare change. She scoured the Internet, plugging his name into Google again and again. But Mr. Daley was nowhere.

“I had to put it in the back of my soul, but it’s always been eating at me,” said Ms. Boyce-Gaskins, 42, who runs a nonprofit center for disadvantaged youths in Atlanta. “My mom charged me with the responsibility of making sure he was O.K. I’ve been in havoc, spiritually.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, Ms. Boyce-Gaskins again woke up thinking about her brother. This time, she was shocked by what Google delivered: Mr. Daley, now 34, had been featured in a May 30 investigation by The New York Times into cramped, unregulated rooming houses known as three-quarter houses.

The homes, seen as somewhere between regulated halfway houses and actual homes, had multiplied in recent years across New York City, catering to poor people recovering from substance abuse, homeless people who wanted to avoid shelters and people with mental illnesses like Mr. Daley. Their rent was usually paid by the $215 monthly housing allowance for people on public assistance, or by about $300 a month in cash for people on disability.

Sign Up For Breaking News Alerts From The New York Times

The houses were often decrepit. Tenants were sometimes forced to go to certain doctors and programs, raising questions about Medicaid kickbacks.

Mr. Daley’s life had been particularly miserable. He had been given only $5 a day to live on. He smoked cigarette butts he collected from sidewalks, ate food he found in the garbage and slept on a lower bunk bed with no sheets, in a grimy room that he shared with three other men. In all, 10 men squeezed into his three-bedroom apartment.

Mr. Daley, who sported a long beard and a large knot on his forehead, spoke in non sequiturs and appeared to hear voices. “I’m sort of anemic, don’t you think, sort of a vampire of a eater?” Mr. Daley, wearing an orange lei and a black leather jacket, asked me, the reporter in December. “I love ketchup, too.”

After reading the article, Ms. Boyce-Gaskins called Mr. Daley’s half brother — the two men share a father — still in the Bronx. She called her father, who lives in Brooklyn. She emailed and called me.

“Please help me locate him to bring him home for the love and care he deserves,” she wrote.

But just before the article was published, Mr. Daley had been tossed into the streets. I had given Mr. Daley a prepaid cellphone so I could stay in touch with him. But he could not seem to remember how to use it, even though I had shown him repeatedly. I had not seen him since the end of May. I figured he had joined the legions of homeless people on the city’s streets, many of them struggling with mental illness.

After the article, the city formed an emergency task force, inspected dozens of three-quarter homes and moved many from overcrowded homes into hotels.

But others were left behind. Mr. Daley had fallen through every possible crack.

Losing a Home and Help

Ms. Boyce-Gaskins thought of herself as Mr. Daley’s guardian. After their mother left them with their great-grandmother in Thomaston, Ga., a town of about 10,000, she talked to her children on the phone, but rarely saw them.

Mr. Daley moved in with Ms. Boyce-Gaskins after she graduated from high school. But it did not last. “I needed help from his father,” she recalled. “It ended up he got into trouble, and I couldn’t carry the load at that time. His dad stepped up.”

At 16, he moved to Brooklyn with his father, a city sanitation worker and artist. Eventually, the two moved into the basement of Mr. Daley’s aunt’s home, in the East New York neighborhood. At some point, Mr. Daley had his first psychotic break. He was soon given a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

Ms. Boyce-Gaskins talked to her brother on the telephone, seeing him occasionally. When their mother died of a stroke about four years ago, Ms. Boyce-Gaskins came to Brooklyn. She tried to take Mr. Daley to the funeral, but he did not appear.

About a year later, the phone calls ended. Mr. Daley’s aunt stopped answering Ms. Boyce-Gaskins’s calls, she said. Mr. Daley, his father and his half brother did not have cellphones. Relatives did not know where Mr. Daley was. Through a Facebook search last summer, Ms. Boyce-Gaskins learned that Mr. Daley’s father had moved to Atlanta without telling her. Then he had died.

It is not clear where Mr. Daley landed. He told me later that he used to live in his aunt’s house, but ended up in a homeless shelter when his father left Brooklyn and his grandfather died. He said the shelter sent him to Back on Track, a network of three-quarter houses, in 2012.

Back on Track, run by Yury Baumblit, put Mr. Daley in one of six neighboring houses on New Lots Avenue in East New York, just off the last stop on the No. 3 subway line. About 120 men and women lived there at any one time.

The federal government had deemed Mr. Daley incapable of managing his disability check, which he said was about $645 a month. So at Mr. Baumblit’s direction, Mr. Daley said, he designated one of Mr. Baumblit’s employees as his official “payee” to manage his money and make sure his needs were met. But Mr. Baumblit gave Mr. Daley only $5 a day, Mr. Daley and his housemates said.

A housemate, John McLeod, 58, had the job of giving Mr. Daley his medications — an antipsychotic, a mood stabilizer and a blood-pressure pill, all kept in a plastic bag on the floor. Mr. McLeod, also on disability, said in December that he had no idea what pills he was handing out. Mr. McLeod also sometimes hit Mr. Daley and threw spoons at him, Mr. Daley and housemates later said. Mr. McLeod could not be reached for comment.

The week before Christmas, everything changed. The evictions started. Mr. Baumblit had been pocketing rent money paid by the government for more than a year, but not paying his own rent. With no notice for tenants, six of the 12 apartments were locked up. The others were scheduled for eviction. Mr. Baumblit abandoned New Lots.

Mr. Daley’s apartment remained open. But in the beginning of January, Mr. McLeod locked Mr. Daley out, housemates said.

For more than six weeks, Mr. Daley was homeless, riding the subways, sleeping where he could and begging for spare change. On Feb. 19, he slipped on the ice and was taken to the hospital with a head injury. He was given a shot of his antipsychotic medicine and his mood stabilizer. His hair was clipped short, his beard trimmed. And then he was released, told to follow up with a doctor in one week. He did not.

Mr. Daley returned to New Lots. Tenants in one of the four remaining apartments, still waiting for their impending evictions, let him sleep on a mattress in the living room. He had no medication. He had no money. Mr. Baumblit’s employee was now getting his entire disability check.

Mr. Daley had two modes of operating when he was off his medication: He was either talkative in bursts, in thoughts that did not track, or he was quiet. At times, I sat with Mr. Daley for an hour, without exchanging a word. Other times, he would greet me with a huge smile. “Oh hey, Kim,” he said once, when I found him sitting outside a nearby bodega, as if he were expecting me.

When he was on his medication, he was dopey. His hands shook so much so that it was difficult for him to light a cigarette. He hated the shaking, probably a side effect of haloperidol, his antipsychotic.

The men in the apartment fed Mr. Daley and supplied him with cigarettes. But the days ticked down toward eviction. Finally, at the end of May, the last Back on Track apartment was locked up.

Finding Mr. Daley

When his sister called, I had not seen Mr. Daley in months. I guessed that he was either in the New Lots neighborhood, riding the subways, in the hospital or in jail.

That afternoon, I met Melvin White, Ms. Boyce-Gaskins’s father, near the bodega where I used to visit Mr. Daley. Mr. White, 62, had not seen Mr. Daley since he was a boy. Now we planned to find him.

We started by walking from store to store, handing out my business card. Had anyone seen the man with the large bump on his forehead? We had photographs of Mr. Daley from the article. The man at the bodega said he thought he had seen Mr. Daley the night before. We walked down to another bodega, near the entrance to the subway station. The man behind the counter was fairly sure he had seen Mr. Daley that morning. Two police officers stood nearby. They did not normally work in East New York, but one of the officers said he had seen Mr. Daley a half-hour earlier.

“It was definitely him,” he said. But his partner was not sure.

We checked on two nearby soup kitchens and two parks. We left a card with a mechanic who said he had seen Mr. Daley. Then we walked into the library. My phone rang.

It was the police officer. “He’s here,” the officer said. “Right near the entrance to the subway.”

We turned a corner, and there he was. Finding Mr. Daley in a city of almost 8.5 million had taken only 47 minutes.

Dirty, unkempt, his beard long and scraggly, he held up his baggy shorts with fists inside his pockets. His shirt improbably read “Billionaire Boys Club.” He wore shoes with no laces. I called his name, and he turned around.

We were overjoyed. He was impassive. I asked how he was. “Fine,” he said, looking suspicious. Mr. White showed Mr. Daley a photograph on his phone.

“Who’s that?” Mr. White asked.

“It looks like my sister,” Mr. Daley said, and then Mr. White called Ms. Boyce-Gaskins and held out the phone to Mr. Daley.

“Hello,” Mr. Daley said, full of politeness as he listened. “This is he.”

“Oh well, I didn’t know,” he said at one point.

“It’s on you because you’re telling me what kind of help I need,” he said at another, before handing the phone back to Mr. White and sitting on the ground.

His wallet was gone, as was his Medicaid card, as were the two bags of belongings he once had. He had no money, had not in months.

“Do you remember me?” I asked, looking to connect with him, to find out what had happened. “Where have you been staying?”

He paused for a few seconds. “I remember you helping me,” he said.

I tried again. “Where have you been sleeping lately, Birshon?”

“Just around. A park bench. A couple benches.”

He thought he had been homeless for only 15 days. It had been two and a half months.

Mr. White took Mr. Daley back to his apartment. He had him sit on a sheet on the couch, so the couch would not get dirty. He fed him a ham-and-cheese sandwich and Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. Mr. White threw away Mr. Daley’s old clothes and gave him clean ones. Mr. Daley took his first shower in months.

The next day, Mr. White tried to get Mr. Daley to go to the hospital to get his medicine. Mr. Daley said nothing.

“Do you feel you need it?” Mr. White asked.

“Not actually,” Mr. Daley said.

He did not want to take another shower. He did not want to brush his teeth. He did not want any pills.

‘A Bigger, Better Chance’

Ms. Boyce-Gaskins decided to pick up her brother that weekend, to take him to her home near Atlanta. I asked Mr. Daley, who liked the winter, how he felt about leaving.

“Very well,” he said, before pausing. “Somewhat distressed,” he continued. “Pretty much, the danger’s far away, but not exactly destroyed. A bigger, better chance.”

Ms. Boyce-Gaskins left work that Friday and rode the train all night, arriving at Mr. White’s apartment around 5 p.m. the next day. When she saw her brother for the first time in four years, she asked him if she could hug him. “Yes,” he said.

Mr. Daley would later tell his sister that seeing her made him feel “sort of like Santa Claus.”

After greeting each other, they walked outside, sat on the building’s stoop and smoked a half pack of cigarettes, talking about their lives. On Sunday morning, Ms. Boyce-Gaskins washed her brother’s feet, and she got him into the shower.

He was different with her than anyone I had ever seen him with, calm and trusting. When she told him not to smoke around company, he listened. When she told him that she had his back, he gave her a fist-bump. She told him that they would stop by the hospital before taking the bus home to Georgia. He grimaced but did not say no.

“Just to get the meds,” she told him. “We’re not staying.”

“We’re leaving,” he replied.

“Indeed,” she said. “We need some meds, and we don’t want the kind that make you shake. O.K.?”

“All right,” he agreed.

At home in Douglasville, Ga., she said, her husband was getting a room ready for Mr. Daley. Their daughter, 12, and nephew, 13, whom they are raising, were happy that she had finally found her brother. Ms. Boyce-Gaskins planned to enroll him in an outpatient program for people with mental illnesses.

“I promised him we would never have to worry about homelessness again,” Ms. Boyce-Gaskins said, before starting to cry.

Talking like this is no fun for Mr. Daley, who often grows weary of my questions and has admitted he finds them annoying. He does not feel sorry for himself, does not dwell on Mr. Baumblit from the three-quarter house and does not talk much about how he has lived in recent years. At one point, he closed his eyes and put his head in his hands.

“You O.K.?” Ms. Boyce-Gaskins asked, touching him on his shoulder.

“Just fine,” he said. “No resentment.”

“None,” she replied. “You know why? Because life has its paths, and you know what? Our paths still crossed back up, no matter how people tried to keep us apart.”

Her brother shook his head and looked at her. “I didn’t see how that was going to happen,” he said.

His sister looked him in the eyes. “But it did,” she said softly.

Advertisements
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: