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Joyce: Celebrity of Homeless Dispute in N. Y.

December 20, 1987|JOSH GETLIN

NEW YORK — At first glance, Joyce Brown seemed to be an unlikely celebrity.

Until recently, the 40-year-old homeless woman had been living on the sidewalk next to a Manhattan restaurant, where she screamed at invisible enemies and swore at passers-by. On occasion, she would relieve herself on the sidewalk or in her clothes.

Brown caught Mayor Edward I. Koch's attention several months ago, when he visited some of the more extreme cases of mentally ill people living on the city's streets. Her plight seemed desperate, aides said, and Koch decided to do something about the problem.

First Person Taken

The result was New York's controversial program of rounding up homeless mentally ill people and bringing them to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment, against their will, if necessary. The program began Oct. 28, and Brown, a former New Jersey secretary, was the first person taken off the streets.

"Today, we have performed a mitzvah (a Hebrew word meaning 'good deed')," Koch is reported to have said when the program got started.

But the fireworks were just beginning.

Brown, infuriated that she had been hauled off the streets, immediately contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union. She insisted that she was mentally competent and vowed to appeal her involuntary commitment in a court hearing at the hospital.

Psychiatrists who examined the agitated woman at Bellevue said she displayed evidence of psychosis, delusions and severe schizophrenia. But civil liberties lawyers, who had their own psychiatric specialists examine Brown, thought otherwise.

No Threat Seen

In the past, they disclosed, the woman had been taken involuntarily to city hospitals but then released because doctors concluded that she did not pose an imminent danger to herself.

"This woman had no business being taken to Bellevue," said Norman Siegel, who heads the civil liberties group. "She may be eccentric and different, but she is not mentally ill. It was a violation of her constitutional rights to be taken off the streets."

The fight over Brown's incarceration became big news and her sullen face a familiar sight in newspapers and on TV broadcasts. In a flood of letters to local tabloids, readers were torn between the city's desire to provide care and Brown's right to remain on the streets.

During the ensuing hearing, Brown's sisters made a tearful appearance, begging acting Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Robert D. Lippman to keep her under hospital care. They said she had displayed violent and unruly behavior before leaving their home and was later known to have used cocaine and crack on the streets.

Ordered Release

In a strongly worded decision, Lippman ordered the city to release Brown, saying she seemed to be mentally competent and needed housing instead of a hospital stay. City attorneys appealed the ruling.

But, on Friday, a state appeals court overturned the lower court decision, ruling 3 to 2 that Brown may be held involuntarily. Brown's attorneys said they would appeal this ruling also.

However the issue is finally resolved, the homeless woman has said that in the future she would like to find her own home and get off the streets.

Whether the city wins or loses, "the fact is this woman needed help. And she got it," said Sara Kellerman, who heads New York City's mental health programs.

As for other patients who have been rounded up, Kellerman said six have appealed their commitments and been turned down by the courts. To date, 38 people have been rounded up, and city officials hope to bring in more than 500 before the program is finished.

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