2009-10-30 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Neponsit Home Revisited
Commentary By Joan Mettler

How many years ago was the wee small hour of the morning closing of what used to be called The Neponsit Nursing Home cum Neponsit Health Care Facility? This despicable act was responsible for the death of several of the patients, two immediately and some over a short period of time, and the loss of tens of local jobs.

There was a meager settlement divvied up among the survivors and the families of the deceased; but, re - mu neration is not the point. For those of you who are newcomers to the peninsula, the following story might be of interest:

My first acquaintance with the Neponsit Home was through a friend whose grandmother was in need of nursing home care. Some thirty-five years ago, Neponsit Home was la créme de la créme of old age facilities. How difficult was it to gain entrance into this public institution? Certainly, you had to know somebody. And, that somebody often was a politician, Gerdi Lipschitz or Walter Ward.

My friend got placement for his grandmother through Gerdi in return for indentured servitude. My buddy, Phil, became Gerdi's transport service to and from the airport at any hour of the day or night forever. Many times Phil said it was worth it. The accommodations, care and conditions were top notch to say nothing of the location and the grounds. And, the facility was always a moneymaker.

The city's Health and Hospitals Corporation (H.H.C.) changed the designation of the institution, thus the name to "Neponsit Extended Care Facility." In addition to those who were neighborhood people, Neponsit took in di gent residents, Alzheimer's pati - ents, and day care and hospice programs; but, never compromised the care and cleanliness there for the residents.

Neponsit residents never took kindly to the reclassification of the facility especially when AIDS patients were housed there, perhaps, fearful for their well-being for lack of information. Still, the secure site, one way in, the same way out with twenty-four hour guard in the guardhouse at the gate, once a symbol of excellence, be came an eyesore and a "problem" in the minds of some Neponsit residents.

The infamous midnight raid of the facility in September of '01 was alarming. Patients were awakened from their sleep, shepherded onto buses, transported to three receiving hospitals unprepared to accept them. Patients had no time to pack their belongings, take their medications, even their teeth and eye glasses were left behind - all on the pretense that the building was in imminent danger of collapse.

Panic and uncertainty fil led the minds of patients and workers alike whose only concern was safety. They were merely told the building they were in was about to collapse.

Al Stabile, our councilman from Ho - ward Beach, along with representatives of Health and Hospitals, met with (now unemployed) workers reassuring the workers that the middle of the night closing was their only alternative, that the brick building was so unsafe. Stabile, in a grandstand ploy, was called out of the West End Temple meeting place only to return out of breath reciting to the audience, "It's a done deal." "It's a done deal." "I just hung up with Mayor Giuliani who told me it's a done deal." The buildings on premises would be razed in preparation for the construction of private dwellings which some believed would be condos.

Former patients housed in corridors of receiving institutions for lack of space and preparation reportedly died off, a few each month. Nobody was ever held responsible for the deaths. Nobody was fired. Nobody was imprisoned.

Neponsit employees scrambled for employment at the three different receiving hospitals, all inconvenient commutes for many of the Rockaway employees. With total disregard to hu - man life and employee welfare, the HHC had given the orders to evacuate a dangerous building that was later proved to be perfectly safe by an engineering company.

The morning after the evacuation, dump trucks lined the roads inside the fenced in property in anticipation of the buildings being imploded and the remains carted away.

Never in the memories of locals had the demolition process happened so expeditiously af ter a building or a set of buildings had gotten the "legal ax." (See the construction still standing on death row across the street from our junior high.)

Lew Simon contacted an attorney who filed an injunction against the HHC and the buildings were spared. It was soon after determined that there was a covenant on the property restricting its use to a hospital or a health related facility. Stabile's plan for the property was thwarted; but, neither for lack of trying, nor for lack of helpless bodies lining morgues in hospitals to which they could never adjust.

Could the patients be returned to Neponsit now that a ruse was uncovered within such a short time post evacuation? Not on your life.

How many years after this Rocka - way shame are the buildings that were in danger of collapse still standing? The answer is eleven. A faci li ty that never cheapened Neponsit, the pati - ents of which never threatened Nepon - sit residents, the institution with one way in and the same way out with three a day security guards at the gate guarding the facility and watching over the one hundred block of Beach 149 Street in Neponsit, never crumbled.

It stands today as a monument to greed and indifference to human life; but, for how much longer?

Rumor has it that the buildings will be razed and the land will be subdivided into 60x100 lots to be sold for private house development; at least this is the scuttlebutt being discussed at Neponsit Property Owners' meetings. Should the future of Neponsit Home land and contents be solely in the hands of Neponsit Property Owners? Hardly! What would best be served by the land and the buildings on that property?

If the covenant on the land on which Neponsit Home sits confines the use of the land to hospital or health related facilities, that is precisely what should occupy the property. Yes. The same way the Court House should, once again, be a court house, the Neponsit land should be an assisted living/ extended care/home for the aged. The occupants should be Rockaway elderly who, after selling their houses, or giving up their apartments, are still viable human beings and deserve a place in their own neighborhood, in which they may spend their declining senior years. Suspiciously, even before the "Home" was closed permanently, then Mayor Giuliani announced the land had been acquired as park land as it was considered surplus property, thus, available for the acquisition. This transfer of 'ownership' was so transparently illegal timing-wise that, if challenged, it would likely be overturned, the original covenant reinstituted. Politics, in-fighting, subterfuge, deception, scare tactics and manslaughter were all called into play to help greedy developers and politicians line their pockets. If added to this was the green light from Neponsit residents, they should never be absolved of their shame.

How put upon the collaborators must have felt when their ploy failed. How much money they must have lost lining their ducks in a row. The surviving residents of Neponsit Home and or their families got to split 15 million dollars in a settlement that barely scratched the surface of recompense for their tragedy.

Nobody was incarcerated and no - body was even indicted with regard to what remains Rockaway's most sha - me ful scandal. Once again, politicians and those in the pipeline anticipating pro fit from the debacle escaped un - scathed. It is amazing how many players left their conscience at the door. They were probably hoping, if given enough time, the whole scandal would go away.

It is time to renovate and reopen the Neponsit facility to provide health care for Rockaway elderly.

If the H.H.C. wants no part of renovation, they should lease the property to a private entity adhering to the original cove nants on the land. Rockaway needs the jobs.

Rockawayites deserve the dignity that provides for housing an aging population. That Neponsit property owners feel they are ordained to decide the future of the land borders on the ridiculous.

We may be given a chance to right a heinous wrong. Let us not make the same mistake twice.

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