When the state decided to move thousands of mentally ill...

When the state decided to move thousands of mentally ill citizens out of its huge psychiatric hospitals, such as this one at Kings Park, the patients were supposed to go to homes in the community, to be treated in less restrictive settings. It didn’t work. Enter Sister Pat. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Don't make any bets against Sister Pat.

A quarter-century ago, that would have been an easy wager to place. Here was Patricia Griffith, a young member of the Sisters of Mercy, trying to tackle a towering injustice, the deinstitutionalization of mental patients, with no real preparation for that complex task.

The problem arose when the state decided to move thousands of mentally ill citizens out of its huge psychiatric hospitals, such as Central Islip, Kings Park and Pilgrim. The patients were supposed to move to homes in the community, to be treated in less restrictive settings. It didn't work.

Too often, they ended up in homes run by people with a sharp eye for an easy revenue stream, but not enough concern for the fragile people they were hosting. Many lived in squalid hotels, like the Baybright in Bay Shore, where they got little or no treatment.

It was the Baybright that drew Sister Pat into a long, frustrating struggle.

She had taught in the elementary school at St. Patrick's in Bay Shore, then became a pastoral associate, a catchall job that let her try something new: establishing a hospitality center for the poor and the mentally ill. They were her natural flock.

"I love the street," Sister Pat said. "In St. Pat's, my favorite people were the real hard-core street folks."

Many of them lived in the Baybright. In 1984, she read that the Town of Islip and Suffolk County wanted to close the Baybright and another hotel. Sister Pat and others from her hospitality center attended many government meetings to plead the case for these at-risk people.

"Over and over again elected officials tried to placate us by saying that it was the 'slum landlord' that they were trying to remove from this community, not the people," she wrote in "The Heart of Mercy," a brief memoir. "I heard myself say, 'So let's buy the hotel and become the landlord.' "

To this enterprise, Sister Pat recruited her friend, Sister Kathy Nolan. Together, they struggled to raise money (they succeeded) and to convince officials that their idea made sense. But they ran into endless doubters, including even the pastor of St. Patrick's, but most of all, the Town of Islip.

So they never got to buy the Baybright and fix it up. Years later, it became a facility for senior citizens. The story of their frustration appeared in a 1986 article in Newsday, under the headline: "Sister Pat Has Lost a Round -- More to Come."

During that struggle, in 1985, Sister Pat and others created a not-for-profit agency, Mercy Haven. It provides services to the mentally ill, the homeless and others with special needs. That includes a program that Sister Kathy runs, Breakthrough, which offers a series of classes that help people arise from homelessness.

Last month, the agency finished buying four more houses. They'll provide real homes for families, right out of emergency homeless shelters. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, Mercy Haven now owns 32 sites and rents 34, providing housing for more than 230.

Mercy Haven has also flexed legal muscle, winning a class-action lawsuit and reversing the state's reduction of food stamp benefits for mentally ill group-home residents and thousands of households. Recently, it started a suit over the state's protracted handling of Medicaid claims.

The round that Sister Pat lost over the Baybright has faded into the distance, and the agency she started is still growing and working powerfully for the poor and mentally ill.

So two strong women, plus an array of friends, have risen from that time of seeming failure to live out the Gospel command of service to the poor, for a quarter-century. Who would have bet on that?

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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