What makes Sammy run?

Huge and helpless, schizophrenic and hypertensive, Sammy Allen has fallen between the administrative cracks of a local mental health system that can't seem to get its ACT together

Allen Sr. says that Sammy calls from time to time to report his whereabouts, and that he's allowed to come to the house occasionally to pick up his mail.

But for the most part, he acknowledges that Sammy is separated from the family. "I believe he wants to come back here to stay, but I won't permit that," Allen Sr. explains. "Not long ago, my granddaughter was telling me where some mental guy was trying to attack his mother or something and killed his father. I'm not taking no chance on no mental patient staying with me. Mental folk, when they go crazy and act up and kill somebody, all they [authorities] say is [imitates mockingly], 'A mental patient killed his father,' and carry him down to Terrell, keep him two, three weeks, then put him back on the streets. That's what happens with mental people. My son ain't gonna live with me no more."

Given the choice, Sammy says he would spend the rest of his life at Terrell State Hospital. He speaks about the place wistfully, describing it as rural and peaceful. He has friends there, he contends, and groups there to help him control his anger. It is, he notes, a place where he can eat cookies and ice cream. A place for sex, too. Allen talks about the "one-dollar hole" he met in Terrell, a female patient with whom he had sex in the bushes behind the hospital's family center. (A psychiatrist at Terrell State wrote in a recent evaluation of Allen, "This [Terrell State] is probably the closest thing that this patient has to a home.")

The attitude of some in the mental health community toward Allen has been a mixture of resentment, resignation, and skepticism as to whether he has a legitimate psychiatric problem. A number of his clinicians and caseworkers appear to be unclear as to where Allen's psychiatric problems end and his behavioral problems begin. Larry Sadberry, a DMHMR case manager, worked with Sammy from 1993 to 1996 when Allen was living in various apartments in South Dallas--the only period in his history during which he was not admitted to a state hospital. Sadberry states that he was involved in "difficult case conferences" during which doctors were convinced that Allen was faking his mental illness, and that Sammy was a malingerer who should go to jail for his behavior rather than exist as a ward of the mental health system.

A 1985 caseworker report on Sammy Allen reads: "This patient has a very difficult time adjusting outside of the hospital and mainly has only one interest in life and that is being taken care of with regular meals and a roof over his head...He especially enjoys staying in bed, lounging around, and just taking it easy."

From a 1996 psychiatric evaluation: "One thing is for sure. He does know how to manipulate the mental health and legal systems to get what he wants...I would also recommend that the Treatment Team work with Sammy to help him understand that the hospital is not his personal Club Med or refuge from all the problems of the world."

"I actually believe he is not as mentally ill as he acts," Sammy's father says. "At times he talks sensible, he knows the scripture, he talks to you with good common sense, he knows how to handle his own money like a normal person. He has a problem, but I think he's actually using that problem to take advantage of the system and of the police force, because they all know him and aren't gonna hurt him. I ain't never heard him be beat up or nothing like that. I believe he's not as sick in mind as he pretends he is."

But when Sammy shows up at a local psychiatric emergency room and announces, "I'm sick, take care of me," he can't be readily dismissed or moved on as homeless and a behavioral problem, because he's been officially diagnosed as being mentally ill. And he has a 26-year paper trail of commitment papers to prove it. So, usually, the ER keeps him overnight, administers medication, and sends him back out into the community.

"I think part of what it's about is Sammy just becomes so frustrating that it's somewhat human nature that people tend to hold on to the part of him that they can say he's milking the system," theorizes Logan, who does believe Allen suffers from a legitimate mental illness. "On the other hand, there's still that sense of 'Gosh I'll throw whatever [medication] I can at him just to see if it'll keep him out of the hospital long enough next time.'"

Jefferson House is a plain brick two-story building located on a retail strip of Oak Cliff filled with pawn shops and rent-to-own stores. A glass door opens to a 20-step flight of stairs, which Sammy labors to ascend.

At the top of the stairs, a worker sits behind a desk in what serves as the Jefferson House lobby. Nearby stands a filing cabinet that has been affixed with a crudely lettered sign that proclaims "NO ONE GETS MEDS"--the rest has been ripped off. Tony DeFreece hands the desk clerk Allen's medications, and she puts them in the filing cabinet, which holds approximately 15 additional paper sacks of medication.

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