The optimistic Joe Donovan | News Feature | Indy Week
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The optimistic Joe Donovan 

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Joe Donovan - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

I've known Joe Donovan, the computer geek and ex-Marine, since I first interviewed him six years ago for "Divided Minds," a story about state mental health programs. I only see him, though, when he's healthy and strong, and we talk about how he's doing and how those so-called reforms are going. I don't see him when his bipolar disorder brings him low, to the point that he's sometimes suicidal and checks himself into a hospital.

I didn't see him either when he was diagnosed, in 2004, with a tumor behind his eye, the removal of which—along with his pituitary gland—left him with Addison's disease and a daily regimen of medications he'll be taking for the rest of his life.

When I interviewed Donovan last month, he said he was coming off a bout with depression, but feeling good—and lucky. "I've had enough years where—I know what my health issues are, and what my options are."

The tumor, for instance, forced him to seek medical help from the Veterans Administration, because he had no money to pay for an operation anywhere else. That's a good thing, he says, laughing: The VA Hospital in Durham now supplies him with a primary care physician, a psychiatrist, an endocrinologist and a neurosurgeon. And since he experienced sleep apnea, he also sees an ear, nose and throat specialist.

As he said this, I realized I have no experience with Donovan seeing the glass half-empty. Whenever I've spoken with him, he's seen it half-full. Even when the health reforms of Gov. Mike Easley's administration were failing, and Donovan knew they were failing—even then, he'd always predict better times ahead when the state figured out what it was doing wrong.

I mention this because I've come to respect Donovan's take on the programs he's experienced, and because he's not someone who just rips away when he's asked his opinion. He's an optimist.

Still, he was the one who called me asking about Wake County's plan to end homelessness in 10 years. He was living—again—at the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh, a county-run shelter, and was frustrated for his friends Gary Smith and Dan Schooley, regulars there who seemed to be getting little help finding jobs.

Let's tee up Donovan's hypothesis. The 10-year plan, he thinks, is focused on serving the 10 percent of homeless folks who account for 90 percent of the costs, including visits to hospital emergency rooms and jail time. These are the people who meet a definition of "chronically homeless" (homeless for a year, or four times in a three-year period) because of serious disability or substance-abuse issues.

That's fine, he adds, but the problem is, half of the homeless population, by his estimate, are "chronic," with equally serious issues, or issues that will be equally serious if they're still homeless after a year. But other folks on the bubble receive low priority in a system that is short of money, staff—and especially short of housing.

Programs at the South Wilmington Street Center, though, are based on people finding a job within a couple of months, and saving money while they work, then moving out, he says. Which makes perfect sense if they can find a job. But they don't get enough help finding one, and another big issue is transportation: Unless the job is on a bus route, homeless people can't get there.

"It works good for a lot of people, don't get me wrong," Donovan says. "But it kind of misses the point. It assumes that most people [who become homeless] can get their lives back together in a few months. But the people who need the most help can't."

He adds: "There's a lot of de-sensitization stuff going on" with a lot of the staff there. "They've seen so much for so long, they don't really expect that you'll be successful ... they expect you to fail."

Donovan's personal situation is complicated. When I met him five years ago, his days of high-paying work as a computer programmer were over. He was receiving Social Security disability payments and renting a condominium on St. Mary's Street with a roommate. He was active as a volunteer advocate for mental health reforms.

He wanted to resume working for pay, though, and the Social Security Administration thought he should too. So he signed on as a consultant, representing consumer interests, with the state Division of Mental Health, and the disability checks ended. Then the division director resigned, he lost his contract, his tumor appeared, and it's been a rocky road for the last three years. He had a job with a disabilities advocacy group for a year, but as he says, his concentration and physical strength come and go, preventing him from maintaining a 40-hour per week workload.

Out of money, out of work, he's been at the South Wilmington Street Center for a year, fighting periodic bouts of depression and looking, now, for part-time work in Web design, programming or something else. He applied to the Social Security Administration last October for a resumption of benefits. He's expecting an answer any day—after 13 months of waiting. "I have friends who've waited longer than that," he says, shrugging.

Finding work for homeless people isn't easy, Donovan says. It's "a lot of risk" on both sides—"for employers, because the person has this kind of history," and for the person, who wonders whether he's capable of steady work and also wonders, in today's economy, if the job he gets today will still be there tomorrow.

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