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Whatever Happened to Billie Boggs?

June 3, 1991 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ When she walked out of Bellevue Hospital three years ago, Billie Boggs was the most famous homeless person in America.

Having won her freedom from the psychiatric ward - ″I’m not insane,″ she told a judge, ″just homeless″ - she went on to speak at Harvard and appear on ″60 Minutes″ and ″Donahue.″ Her case was cited by President Reagan as an example of American freedom of choice. She was going to get a job and an apartment, and there was talk of a book or a movie.

Today, however, almost no one knows where Billie Boggs is or what she is doing: not those who once passed her ″home″ on an East Side sidewalk; not the agency that pulled her into the hospital; not the psychiatrists who helped get her out; not her family.

″We haven’t been able to find her,″ says her niece, Michelle James. ″The last time we heard from her was a year ago. She called to curse my mother out.″

These days she goes by her real name, Joyce Brown. Those who know her say she lives quietly and relatively happily in a supervised group home. She takes no anti-psychotic drugs, and is free to walk the streets.

But Brown never got a job or an apartment of her own, and the book and movie deals never developed. There was a drug arrest, a fight with a roommate, and several incidents on the street.

She does not want her whereabouts divulged, and she does not want to talk to reporters. Her protectors describe her as a disturbed person, drifting somewhere between sanity and insanity.

For the last two years, however, she has stayed out of trouble and off the street. Asks psychiatrist Francine Cournos: ″Isn’t that what her case was all about?″

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″Where IS Billie Boggs?″

Edward Koch’s voice rises as he repeats the question addressed to him. He has been out of City Hall for more than a year, but her case still engages him.

″Why don’t you ask Norman SIEGEL where she is,″ asks the former mayor. Siegel is director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which helped Brown gain her freedom. ″Maybe he took her home to live with him.″

Joyce Brown is a short, wiry woman who was born into a working-class family in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1947. After high school she held several secretarial jobs, but became addicted to heroin and cocaine. She became argumentative and disorderly, and in 1986 she moved out of a sister’s home and hit the streets.

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A city agency, Project HELP, had been seeking out the homeless mentally ill for years, offering food and clothing and evaluating their psychiatric condition. But six in 10 brought to hospitals were never admitted, mostly because they did not fit the legal standard for institutionalization - they were not a danger to themselves or others.

To Koch, Joyce Brown epitomized the problem. Three times she had been taken to hospitals and diagnosed as a schizophrenic; each time she was released because she seemed in no immediate danger.

The city created a special 28-bed unit at Bellevue and announced it would begin forcibly hospitalizing anyone whose self-neglect might become life- threatening ″in the reasonably foreseeable future.″

When the program began Oct. 28, 1987, Joyce Brown was the first person picked up. She immediately turned to the Civil Liberties Union.

At a three-day hearing before a judge at Bellevue, the city’s witnesses said Brown urinated and defecated on the sidewalk, burned dollar bills and screamed obscene threats at passers-by, especially black men.

Brown took the stand and described herself as a ″professional″ at street survival. She described a heat grating at the corner as her ″heating system.″ She said she burned unsolicited dollar donations because she didn’t want to be a target for muggers. She didn’t like the street, but it was better than a shelter.

She convinced the judge. Crazy or not, he ruled, Brown was ″not unable to care for her essential needs″ and should be released. But his order was immediately stayed, and eventually reversed by a 3-2 vote of a state appeals court. The majority said the judge should have given greater credence to Bellevue psychiatrists.

A month later, however, the same psychiatrists decided to release Miss Brown after yet another judge ruled that she should not be forced to take anti-psychotic medication against her will. Brown moved into a temporary home for once-homeless women.

″It looks like I have been appointed the homeless spokesperson,″ she told The New York Times. She filled in as a secretary at the Civil Liberties Union office, where she sat before a 72-button telephone and ″expertly screened calls,″ the Times reported.

A month after her release Brown spoke at the Harvard Law School on ″The Homeless Crisis: A Street View.″ ″I was a political prisoner,″ she said. ″My only problem was I didn’t have a place to live.″

But events soon shattered any notion that all of Brown’s troubles could be traced to her politics or her lack of an address.

Poised during interviews and in court, Brown acted differently when the lawyers and reporters were not around. Acquaintances said she talked to herself, sang and laughed loudly, and often became abusive for no apparent reason.

Two weeks after returning from Harvard, Brown was panhandling and abusing passers-by; she later explained that her disability checks had been held up and she needed money.

In May, police were called to break up a fight between Brown and another woman, and she was hospitalized for undisclosed physical ailments twice in the next six months. Shortly after her release the second time she was arrested and charged with possession of four small bags of heroin. She later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct.

In January 1989, a year after her release, she turned up briefly at her old spot on Second Avenue, and was shown on television cursing at cameramen. Six months later a disheveled Brown was seen standing on a street in midtown, where she told a photographer she needed help from Donald Trump.

Since then, the public has heard nothing of her.

Earlier this year Brown moved into a long-term, supervised residence for mentally disturbed people. She receives a disability check of about $500 a month, part of which pays for her room and board.

″She’s doing fine, but this is somebody who’s very fragile. Neither we nor she want any coverage,″ says Joan Olson, director of the agency that ran the home where Brown lived for two years. When reporters have tried to interview Brown in the past year, Olson said, ″she got very upset.″

Olson describes Brown’s brush with fame as debilitating. ″All the exposure - going to Harvard and all - in the end was very detrimental, in terms of coming to terms with who she really is.″

″In retrospect, it was too much,″ agrees Dr. Robert Gould, a psychiatrist who testified on Brown’s behalf and later treated her. ″When everything calmed down, there she was, still Joyce Brown with her problems and not much to sustain her over a period of time. ... It was a shot in the arm, but it didn’t lift her out of anything.″