Mentally ill Nikkei woman falls through the cracks multiple times

Teresa Sheehan. photo by Patricia Sheehan

Fourteen years after the San Francisco Police Department shot a mentally ill woman who was having a schizo-affective episode, she was recently released from a hospital stay and has since settled into a “temporary” home. Her family, however, remains concerned about how she will live out the rest of her life after falling through the cracks multiple times.

Teresa Sheehan, 70, fell on the street near her Tenderloin single-room occupancy hotel March 8. A fellow resident saw her on the ground and got a nurse from the building. Sheehan was taken to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Beyond the injuries from her fall, doctors found Sheehan dehydrated and malnourished after she spent years in what her sisters called a “squalor.”

The second oldest of five siblings, Sheehan was born in Japan to a U.S. serviceman and Japanese mother in Okinawa Prefecture. Today, she and her siblings live in the United States. Her oldest sister, Patricia Sheehan, lives in San Francisco, while her youngest sister, Frances Sheehan, who has served as her advocate, lives in Portland, Ore.

Teresa Sheehan’s sisters said she has had schizo-affective disorder for decades. They said she also has a condition known as anosognosia, which leaves Sheehan unable to comprehend that she is ill or needs help. Thus, she avoids taking the medications she needs to remain stable. According to court records, Sheehan had not been taking her medications for months when she became embroiled in a case that would eventually take her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Aug. 7, 2008, Sheehan threatened to kill her social worker at the Conrad House, where she lived in a Mission District group living complex. Upon being threatened, the social worker called the police to assist him with an emergency 5150 hold, a temporary 72-hour involuntary detainment for mentally ill patients in California. When police confronted Sheehan, she threatened them with a knife and the police shot her after pepper spray failed to stop her.

According to court records, Sheehan was shot five times, twice by the first officer and three more by a second. The last shot struck her after she was on the ground. Her sisters, however, assert that she was shot seven times and said the last shot was aimed at her head as a “kill shot.” Her trial ended with a hung jury and the district attorney’s office dismissed the case rather than retry it.
San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Kleigh Hathaway told the Nichi Bei Weekly the ordeal likely left her client permanently scarred.

“When the case was dismissed, she was then released from jail. And it was horrible because she didn’t have any place to live. Her mental health was so bad at that point, because there’s nothing like being incarcerated to make your mental health just completely deteriorate. So she was paranoid and she was worse than she’d ever been,” she said. “I don’t actually think she’s ever recovered from it, actually.”

In addition to her worsened mental condition, Teresa Sheehan was now physical disabled. She had a metal rod inserted where she fractured her femur and used a wheelchair during her trial. She later recovered to be able to use a walker, but since her latest fall, is once again using a wheelchair.

After the criminal case, Teresa Sheehan sued the city with the help of her family, along with representatives from San Francisco’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other activists in a years long case that eventually went to the Supreme Court in 2015.

The Supreme Court case reviewed two questions: Was Teresa Sheehan entitled to accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act as a mentally ill person when police tried to bring her into custody, and were the police justified to enter her room without a warrant under her Fourth Amendment rights? In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States said the police were ultimately entitled to enter Sheehan’s room, given the circumstances, but did not address the question of whether the ADA. The Supreme Court kicked that portion of the decision back down to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Following the Supreme Court case, Teresa Sheehan continued to press for a jury trial to prove she was not at fault, but the city presented a million dollar settlement paid through her former SRO’s management company’s insurance policy. About half of the settlement went to the lawyers, the other half was placed under a trust Frances Sheehan now uses to help pay for her sister’s rent and other expenses.

Since the 2016 settlement, Teresa Sheehan remained at what her sisters called a “temporary” home in a Tenderloin SRO with an elevator to accommodate her physical disability. The city placed her there after she was kicked out of her previous home due to the shooting.

Frances Sheehan says the city was supposed to transfer her to a permanent home where she could get “wraparound services.”

The transfer, however, never happened. When the city brought Teresa Sheehan the necessary paperwork to approve the move, Teresa Sheehan, whom Frances Sheehan said was off her medication again, refused to sign. Despite having the durable power of attorney, Frances Sheehan said the city declined to let her sign on her sister’s behalf. She thus remained in the “temporary” housing situation for 14 years.

The Nichi Bei Weekly sought comment from the San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Human Services Agency, but none of the departments answered why Frances Sheehan could not sign on her sister’s behalf.

The sisters told the Nichi Bei Weekly hospital staff had initially planned to return Teresa Sheehan to the SRO. Frances Sheehan, however, called the converted 100-year-old hotel a “death trap,” given that Teresa Sheehan lived on the fourth floor and the building’s elevator would sometimes break down. She stressed that it was especially concerning to send Teresa Sheehan back to her SRO, as she is currently unable to go to the bathroom by herself.

Teresa Sheehan’s case is far from unique. The San Francisco Chronicle published a scathing article on the dilapidated state of SRO hotels in the city April 26, reporting that the most vulnerable people in the city, many poor, old and lacking mental health care, lived in a system they could hardly navigate. Frances Sheehan said the SRO hotel where her sister stayed lacked accountability, and would not tell the family what was happening to her sister unless they wanted something, such as unpaid rent.

Frances Sheehan said the case worker at the SRO called her to report her sister had been missing two weeks after she never returned from a trip to Santa Maria, Calif. to see her brother. They told her that her sister might have been sighted at a homeless shelter in Portland, Ore., but the shelter refused to answer any questions, citing privacy laws.

“I found her on the streets. I went every day looking for her on the streets, on the streets of Portland in the worst areas,” she said. “I found my sister. She had been robbed, she was sleeping on the street.”

When Teresa Sheehan somehow stopped her social security checks from going straight to her SRO to pay for rent, and her social security income was stopped altogether for accruing “too much” after she was confined to the hospital for a few weeks, Frances Sheehan said she was not told about any of her sister’s financial troubles until they e-mailed her to demand she pay the back rent or risk her sister’s eviction.

“I advocated her through the criminal trial. I advocate her all the way to the Supreme Court, and then you tell me another government entity has more power than the Supreme Court. And you can’t help your own family member and be their advocate to stand there with them.

That’s insane,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly of her trouble trying to reinstate her sister’s social security income to no avail. “And this is for people who have people in the family that are willing to help them navigate the legal and the political system. And how is a mentally ill person supposed to navigate them?”

Frances and Patricia Sheehan estimated that their sister’s latest fall is the third. They said their sister was a “fighter,” insisting she did not need help, but her latest hospitalization seems to have broken her spirits.

“I think she’s completely given up and that’s why we have to fight for her, because before all of this, she was a fighter. She wanted to be independent,” Patricia Sheehan told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “She told the judge she didn’t need anyone to help her do this or whatever. And even at that point, she really did. She just didn’t understand everything Frances did behind the scenes.”

The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Teresa Sheehan at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, but she was largely uncommunicative. Patricia Sheehan, who attended the interview, told the Nichi Bei Weekly her sister was having a particularly “bad” mental health day.

A week after the interview, the hospital discharged Teresa Sheehan and placed her in a residential care facility nearby. According to Patricia Sheehan, who had been visiting her sister nearly every day since her hospitalization, hospital staff met with a case worker at the SRO and deemed Teresa Sheehan’s old home unsuitable.

“It was wonderful to hear that Teresa had a restful night and she almost beamed when she responded to my question of how she enjoyed her first few meals,” Patricia Sheehan said. “Her reply was that she ate Chinese and it was ‘delicious.’”

Frances Sheehan, however said she still has concerns. Although she is glad her sister is out of the hospital, her latest home is still “temporary,” and does not offer the wraparound services Teresa Sheehan needs. The assisted living facility she lives in does not have any medical staff and predominantly caters to Chinese seniors, with only management staff who are able to speak English, according to Patricia Sheehan. Frances Sheehan also noted that, since her sister is poor and on Medi-Cal and Healthy SF medical plans, the care she receives is minimal. While the home will give her the medication she needs to keep her mental health in check, the sisters said they do not think their sister is getting any psychiatric help or any substantial physical therapy to help her walk again after her body has heavily atrophied.

The two sisters are now looking at next steps. They said they want to move Teresa Sheehan to a residential care facility for seniors that handles mental health issues, but noted that such facilities are very expensive. The money from the settlement, Frances Sheehan said, will only last so long. Teresa Sheehan must also get her application ready and wait for an open spot, which may take a year or longer. Although this time, since she is taking her medication, Patricia Sheehan said she will likely agree to sign the necessary paperwork when the opportunity arises.

In the meantime, Frances Sheehan said she hopes San Francisco won’t let her sister fall through the cracks again and take care of her sister for the remainder of her life.

“I’m asking for the city to give her the dignity that she deserves and the support,” she said.

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