Bulldozing the old East Side, predicting suicide problems at the jail

Blackout shades

The Mayor’s recently concluded set of Eastside investment summits took place against a virtual backdrop of boarded-up houses and empty lots, the legacy of decades of poverty, discrimination, and absentee landlords. Hundreds, maybe thousands, more buildings in the City’s historically black neighborhoods are in precarious shape, their roofs sagging, porches detached, windows broken.

“It’s old house, old house, empty lot; old house, old house, empty lot,” says Malcolm Monroe, who is fighting the City to save the home his parents built in the ’30s, a single-story woodframe house just north of Nolan and east of New Braunfels. “It was gun boxes — all kinds of wood; wood was hard to get.”

On this street alone, at least two houses have been demolished, and two more are boarded up. The City disputes Monroe’s claim to the house, which was in the name of a brother who died without a will; Assistant City Attorney Savita Rai says Monroe doesn’t deserve the house, in any event, because he hasn’t bothered to work on it since his brother was murdered there in 1997.

Except it wasn’t 1997. Allen Monroe was killed in May 2007, a detail that seems inconsequential to Rai, who could’ve easily found a deed from 2002 conveying Malcolm’s interest to Allen in the Bexar County records. And despite his for-sure RIP status in 2009, the City’s code-compliance notices were addressed to the deceased Mr. Monroe, says attorney Eddie Bravenec, who obtained a stay on the demo and has filed an appeal.

So was the notice for a September 14, 2009, Dangerous Structures Determination Board hearing, where two police officers testified that the house is a “haven for drug and prostitution activities,” and was the site of a “murder over a drug deal.” The neighbors “are afraid of retaliation from the `again, according to the City: dead` owner and his friends if they complain about this structure before the Board,” one added, and an elementary school is just down the street.

Malcolm Monroe himself failed to appear, and the board voted 4-0 to tear down the house and, as they do in these cases, send the bill to the owner (The dead man? Somehow we doubt it).

In fact, according to the DSDB minutes from that day, the board voted 4-0 on every case it reviewed, and that, according to Bravenec, may be part of the problem. Unlike, say, the Zoning and Planning commissions and the Parks Board, the DSDB is populated entirely by rotating City staff designated by the City Manager. Essentially, the City presents its case to itself, which raises the question whether this violates citizens’ right to have an impartial finder of fact. These are, after all, property rights that are being bulldozed. Also: the dangerous-premises search warrants that can put a demolition in motion are signed by a judge appointed by City Council.

On a recent rainy afternoon, the QueQue visited Monroe in his home, a good two-thirds of which was leaking. The spacious front living room, where family photos hang on the wall, was dry, as was a front parlor, which held a piano, toys, and some of the trains that his father used to collect. Wires protruded like spaghetti from a bedroom wall. But a tear-down? Having seen many Monte Vista and King William homes pre-renovation, the QueQue tends to think it’s a matter of money and will. Speaking of money, Malcolm says, “If we were really drug-dealing, we’d have flat-screen TVs.” And maybe a new roof. Despite its state of disrepair, the house still has its charms, including graceful wooden archways, smooth plaster walls, and bead-board ceilings.

It also has a police record, as does most of the street. The rap sheet for the entire block for the past three years runs to almost 250 offenses, which averages out to roughly 14 calls per lot. Monroe’s address doesn’t even make the top four; those honors go to 107, 109, 137, and 119. The QueQue called Rai to find out what, if anything, the City and its ballyhooed new Dangerous Assessment Response Team were doing about the rest of the street, but she’s yet to call back.

The City code provides for condemning structures that have “become so dilapidated or deteriorated or neglected as to become a harbor for vagrants or criminals,” but focusing on crime muddies the intent of the dangerous-structures law, Bravenec says (authorities already have broad asset-seizure powers under the criminal code, although real property is seldom seized in Bexar County), and it doesn’t solve the underlying problems in the way that, say, foot patrols, or a real neighborhood revitalization plan could.

“When you go in and try to solve the problem by demolishing the house, what happens of course is that the problem moves on to the next available house,” says Bravenec. The other danger in this approach? “Sometimes `the City is` wrong.”

Early warning signs

As it turns out, University Health System staff were worried about the impact of jail overcrowding at Bexar County Jail last spring, just as the jail was heading into its deadliest year, by one measure, in more than a decade: six suicides, three times the national and statewide averages. As reported in “Hang Time,” January 20, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz invited a national expert in suicide prevention to come examine the jail and its operations later this month. Now, more than 50 pages of UHS emails released to the Current show a health department grappling with a problem far beyond its power to control.

“There is a lot of confusion regarding housing for suicidal inmates,” Lydia Mesquiti wrote to staff members on March 13, 2009. “The jail administrator is allowing suicidal inmates to be housed in PODs that are not designated as a Suicide Prevention Unit. Our Department (UHS-DHCS) policy has NOT changed. When we find someone with a suicide potential and place him on suicide precautions he is to go the SPU or OB (if female) or MT-O1.”

Mesquiti, the director of mental-health services over UHS’s jail contract with Bexar County, instructed her staff to continue correctly classifying every suicidal inmate even if they weren’t being housed under the right conditions.

“We are not authorizing any suicidal inmates to any other units,” she wrote. “If a suicidal inmate is taken to another unit not designated for suicide prevention then you are to call the UHS Vice President Theresa Scepanski.

Jail Administrator Roger Dovalina told the Current last month that overcrowding likely contributed to the high number of suicides at the jail last year. A review of jail records showed cases where the inability to house inmates in the suicide unit because of overcrowding appeared to contribute to hanging deaths. Early last year, UHS staff began lobbying hard for changes in housing these at-risk detainees that Chief Dovalina apparently was not willing to make.

On March 14, UHS VP Scepanski wrote staff after hearing that jail personnel were placing suicidal inmates in the required smocks but not in the suicide prevention unit. “I spoke to Shift Commander `Capt. David Salinas` and explained this ‘new’ policy cannot go into effect until we can meet and discuss a process that does not conflict with the regulations. … I requested this inmate be placed in MT01. Shift Commander did not cooperate with my request,” Scepanski wrote.

UHS mental-health employees had been lobbying to turn an open area of the jail into a makeshift suicide-watch area, a suggestion that was ultimately rebuffed. However, a month later, a little progress was made when Dovalina instructed jail staff to increase their observation-round frequency from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes wherever suicidal inmates were being housed. Calls to Dovalina have not been returned.

In August, after 412 suicide attempts and three hanging deaths, a sheriff’s deputy wrote: “The mental health staff blame the medical staff, who in turn blame classification, then the blame is back on mental health staff. It is a circle of frustration and during this time the inmate creates problems for the booking staff. I am under the impression that an inmate evaluated and found to be suicidal, should at least be monitored or at least checked on occasion by mental health unit, that hardly happens.”

Instead, suicidal detainees were being forced to sit on a stool in front of the sergeant’s desk until a cell was located, a process that could take up to 48 hours, the deputy wrote.

On December 4, Chief Dovalina issued Administrative Directive 09-30 ordering staff to conduct 30-minute surveillance of inmates housed in Intake (including detox, where at least one suicide occurred last year) and the jail annex. They had been making the rounds every hour. According to the department’s Suicide Prevention Log, 769 inmates attempted to take their lives at the jail in 2009.

Pre-owned models only

It’s not all about a Jimmy Carter-eggplant hybrid and a Palestinian combover king.

Those of you who suffered through the two-way Democratic Primary debate this week will be forgiven for not knowing that a full seven candidates are vying for voters’ favor on March 2. KERA, which organized the affair, found nearly three quarters of the Democratic contenders for Perry’s seat even less photogenic than former Houston Mayor Bill White and hair-product magnate Farouk Shami.

“It’s gotten to the point where, if you’re not one of the chosen, or one of the elite, one of the blessed … you’ve got no chance,” said Star Locke, a Port Aransas builder running for governor on the higher-faster pro-border-wall ticket. “That’s like 99 percent of the people in Texas. I mean, my God, we’re all working slobs.”

Now Locke and three other debate-excluded candidates have lobbed a $400-million lawsuit at the North Texas television station, alleging it violated their rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection under the law.

“By ‘disqualifying’ & ‘excluding’ plaintiffs from these debates the ‘melt down effect’ takes place across Texas with all the media,” Locke wrote in the complaint, filed Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Austin. “The ‘snow ball effect’ comes into play and soon all efforts by Plaintiffs to speak or be heard or campaign turns into a joke and Plaintiffs are even ridiculed as ‘publicity seekers’ or ‘even weird.’”

With a full slate of candidates on view and their multifaceted perspectives represented, Monday night’s staid White-Shami faceoff could instead have rocked viewers with tirades about our crumbling schools, the rights of Central American trabajadores, and the Amero currency conspiracy.

KERA employees have said the five candidates failed to meet the station’s three-part criteria for inclusion: 1) being on the ballot, 2) having a newsworthy campaign, and 3) registering 6 percent or more in a statewide poll.

Unfortunately, newbie candidates have a tough time raising the needed cash to run a competitive race without first gaining exposure, and exposure comes easiest with the donations gained from it. Catch-22. The plaintiffs contend the formula penalizes candidates who aren’t established politicians with a pool of donors to tap, or millionaires willing to flush their own funds down the campaign hole.

In a letter to KERA last week, San Antonio doctor and would-be Gubernator Alma Aguado came a breath away from decrying her exclusion as racist.

“Please inform the sponsors of KERA Unlimited committee that I have one of the largest and more sucesfull `sic` Internal medicine practices in San Antonio, Texas and 96% of my patients are Hispanic, very few of my patients knows how to open a computer, or enter into Google, or file or edit, or insert or format. Many do not even speak English,” Aguado wrote.

DeAnne Cuellar, executive director of the San Antonio-based nonprofit Media Justice League, agrees with Aguado’s message. Poverty rates in San Antonio and South Texas are reflected in low online access, Cuellar said. “It is a race issue for us … and the communities we work with, because it’s impossible for us to ignore that the majority of people who are feeling the disparities are overwhelmingly people of color. It makes it a racial issue.

“If we’re voting and we’re putting agendas online and yet your community doesn’t have access to the internet, what sort of community is that? What does that say?”

And if we’re talking telephone surveys, the last poll the QueQue is aware of was taken before White’s race jump scared off Tom Schieffer, Ronnie Earle, and Kinky Friedman, and 55 percent of Dems were undecided.

Dallas teacher and former San Antonian Felix Alvarado bagged 2 percent of that November poll, but was still excluded from the shuffle. The rejection came by FedEx last week, he said.

In an effort to achieve some clarity, QueQue called KERA Monday and was transferred to the director of viewer services, who said the only person who would be able to comment was busy prepping for the debate. “But you’re welcome to leave a message.”

Alvarado has experienced a similar lack of responsiveness. “We called them several times and we have been emailing them, calling them, but they always let us talk to a secretary, and the secretary says, ‘Go to our website and the website will tell you the criteria and you don’t meet the criteria,’” Alvarado said.

The only failed criteria he can pinpoint is his lack of money.

“I have been out there, throughout almost all the state. … We were going on the premise that we had a good message and that people would respond,” he said. “You know the DNC and the Democratic Party are involved in this. And White is the anointed one.” •

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