It started with an argument. No punches thrown, just words exchanged.
Denise Fitzpatrick, a petite, primly dressed African-American woman, now sixty-one, went to use the restroom at the Cornerstone Day Center, a publicly funded, Wake County-owned facility in downtown Raleigh that provides services such as mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to the homeless.
It was August 2014, and Fitzpatrick had swung by Cornerstone to pick up her mail with her son, Julian, now thirty-four, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. They were homeless—and had been, on and off, for the previous two years. At the time, they were living out of a storage unit.
When she returned from the restroom, Julian was in the Cornerstone lobby, arguing with another homeless man. The man was cursing at Julian, Fitzpatrick says.
"It was M F this and F you, you stepped on my bag, M F this, that, and the other," Fitzpatrick recalls. "He was saying, 'Let's take this outside.'"
Staff members and security guards later told Fitzpatrick that Julian had stepped on the man's bag. Julian apologized, they said, but the man wouldn't accept his apology. As Fitzpatrick was leading her son out of the building to cool down, the man continued to yell at him. Julian picked up a metal trashcan and slammed it to the ground. It was an uncharacteristic outburst, Fitzpatrick says.
For this infraction, Julian was barred from the Cornerstone premises for twenty-eight days, in accordance with the center's policy. Fitzpatrick sent Julian to a crisis center and had his medications adjusted.
From the county's perspective, this should have been the end of it.
Fitzpatrick thought it was.
She continued to utilize Cornerstone's services. A month later, she signed into Shelter Plus Care, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides rental subsidies and support services to homeless people with disabilities, including mental illnesses. Fitzpatrick has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
She was approved for the program, which currently has about two hundred participants in Wake County. On October 14, 2014, she attended an orientation and signed a document outlining expectations for voucher participants. According to the form, Fitzpatrick could request that her son be allowed to live with her, and she agreed to monthly visits with her caseworker. In exchange, Wake County would cover 100 percent of her rent—which turned out to be $655 a month—plus her utilities.
But after Fitzpatrick made it clear that she wanted her son to come live with her, things started to unravel.
A social worker told Fitzpatrick that Julian couldn't live with her because his behavior was threatening to himself or others. Another Cornerstone employee told Fitzpatrick she would have to apply for a different program if she wanted her son to live with her. Yet another told her she would have to live by herself for a year before she could have her son move in.
To Fitzpatrick, these responses contradicted the rules she'd agreed to follow. Neither the form she signed nor any of the paperwork she received said anything about behavior beyond prohibitions on alcohol and drug use. Instead, she thought county officials were discriminating against Julian because of his mental-health problems—and that, to her mind, constituted a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The law makes it illegal for otherwise qualified individuals with a disability— including a mental impairment—to be excluded from federally funded programs because of their disability or the disability of anyone associated with them. Fitzpatrick maintained that Julian was not a threat to anyone, yet the county refused to let him live with her.
In November, Fitzpatrick filed a complaint with HUD, the North Carolina Human Relations Commission, and Legal Aid of North Carolina's Fair Housing Project. That kicked off what Fitzpatrick describes as months of harassment and discrimination against her by Wake County employees, culminating in a lawsuit brought against her by her landlord after the county revoked her voucher and a countersuit she filed against Wake County. That, in turn, led to a settlement she didn't want but was forced into by her court-appointed guardian, a former Wake County judge, after she was declared unable to manage her own affairs—a decision, it seems, prompted in part by her insistence on taking her case to trial.
Fitzpatrick's story sheds light on just how challenging it is for people like her to find normal, stable housing where they can live independent lives. It also raises questions about the kinds of decisions social workers and bureaucrats should be allowed to make on behalf of people with disabilities, and about under what circumstances individuals should lose their legal autonomy.
"I am crying out for justice," Fitzpatrick says. "I am crying out for fair treatment to whoever listens. It isn't fair for my son to be in adult care, begging to come home. Justice to me means fair treatment—that we should be compensated for our damages."