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Motel a Surprise Haven for Mentally Ill : Samaritan: At her transformed rooming house, owner has sheltered, fed and otherwise tried to help hundreds of lost souls for more than 30 years.

May 22, 1994|JEFF DONN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Hotel owner Josephine Shaw was almost no one's idea of a Samaritan to the mentally ill--least of all her own.

She mainly wanted to earn a living. But her simple decency bloomed into compassion and ended up transforming both her and her business venture.

At her Northampton rooming house, Shaw has sheltered, fed and otherwise tried to help hundreds of mentally ill and a smaller number of retarded tenants for more than 30 years.

It wasn't always easy or pleasant. Some tenants struck out habitually in rage; some poured rent money into booze or drugs.

"How can you turn them away?" she said recently, standing in the parking lot of her two-story hotel. "They're human. Somebody's got to take care of them."

Shaw and her late husband, Donald, began accepting the mentally ill at Shaw's Motel around 1960. They bucked neighborhood opposition in this affluent college town to participate in an experiment to find community housing for patients from the nearby U.S. Veterans Medical Center.

At first, Shaw acknowledges, she looked upon her new tenants as a way to bolster her seasonal tourist income with year-round rent.

Even today, she complains about expenses and frets about taxes and tenants who are late with the rent. "It's like that guy in City Hall told me: 'Mrs. Shaw, if you want to run the business with your heart, that's your business. But we want our money.' "

But Shaw's act of faith--that her new boarders, however troubled, were still people--eventually led her to share in their joy and pain.

"I had many good tenants. They were so happy to be out in the community after all that time. They loved their freedom," she said. "Even the bad patients I could cope with, because I knew they were sick."

Shaw started looking in on her new tenants and ended up looking out for them. When they needed a meal, she fed them from her home next to the hotel. If they needed a reminder to take their medicine, she provided one. If they needed a few bucks, she would loan them. If they needed help, she would call for it.

She eventually accepted mentally ill tenants from Northampton State Hospital and mentally retarded residents from the Belchertown State School. In a triumph for advocates of community care, both state institutions are now closed.

One current tenant at Shaw's 16-room hotel, John Borg, calls Shaw "Mom." This 50-year-old schizophrenic lives alone in his $350-a-month room with dozens of discarded dolls, stuffed animals and knickknacks he collects and displays on every bit of free space.

"I get mad at her sometimes, as I got mad at my mother. But she understands," he said, looking at Shaw.

But she said he needs his medication to keep a grip. "When it's not working, poor John doesn't even know me," she said.

Though no tenant has ever attacked her, she said, "I would never turn my back on them." Tenants have smashed walls, broken windows and once cracked open a police officer's head with a table leg. In 1985, a military veteran took a shotgun and killed himself in one of her rooms.

Many tenants have returned to local hospitals for treatment, sometimes repeatedly. She believes that some were so sick they could never survive outside an institution.

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