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Home / Articles / News / News Articles /  Trouble In Palmer Court
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Trouble In Palmer Court

Mad House: Low-income housing tenants complain of mentally unstable residents.

By Eric S. Peterson
Posted // November 11,2009 -

In a crumpled copy of Palmer Court’s housing rules, a former tenant of the low-income housing facility in downtown Salt Lake City, Mike Whiteman, has underlined a rule prohibiting violent threats against other tenants. Whiteman, in fact, complained twice about threats made against his ex-girlfriend and his current girlfriend, including one man who threatened to break Whiteman’s girlfriend’s neck. Palmer Court staff promised action would be taken, and within a month the staff had resolved the complaint— by evicting Whiteman.

Whiteman doesn’t deny that he told administrators he would take a hammer to the tenant if the threats continued, but he’s baffled by the double standard that bounced him for his threat while the other tenants still call Palmer Court home.

“Whether or not that individual was a threat really has to do with Mike’s perception,” says Road Home Homeless Shelter Director Matt Minkevitch, who also oversees Palmer Court.

For low-income housing advocates like Minkevitch, the drama of a few tenants may just be the tip of a larger iceberg which is this: How can low-income housing accommodate a growing population of tenants with chronic mental illness?

Approximately 350 people live in Palmer Court, located at 999 S. Main. Whiteman was part of the 60 unsubsidized tenants who moved to the facility from the Regis, a State Street single-room occupany hotel, in the early summer. He never had much of a problem with Palmer Court until he received a phone call from his ex-girlfriend on July 23, asking him to come quickly to her room because another tenant was shouting at her and trying to break into her room.

Besides calling the police, Whiteman complained to Palmer Court staff whom, he says, ignored him. Less than a month later, Whiteman and his current girlfriend were stopped in the hallway by a different tenant.

“He steps right out and looks her dead in the eye and says ‘I’ll break your fucking neck, bitch,’” Whiteman says. Again, he called security and police, but to no avail.

Whiteman says if it weren’t for his personal history, he would have reacted differently to the threat. “I’d run metal up his ass.”

Whiteman served a 12-year sentence at the Utah State Prison in Draper for homicide. The conviction stemmed from a fight Whiteman had with a Mexican trans-national gang member in Pioneer Park in 1993. Whiteman wielded a knife in the fight, a factor that likely got him incarcerated for murder. However, evidence which never made it to trial showed that Whiteman was handicapped in the fight with an injured fist, as reported in the Sept. 22, 2005, City Weekly feature “Whiteman’s Burden.”

The time inside, however, helped Whiteman kick a 30-year-old heroin addiction and turn his life around in many other ways. The lesson he learned from his incarceration prompted him to call the authorities rather than deal with the tenant himself. Still, Whiteman says, “Even when I win, I lose.”

Nearly a week after complaining about the second incident, Whiteman received a letter from Minkevitch, who informed Whiteman the situation was being handled. The letter closed by saying that if Whiteman were concerned for his safety that he should call the police. While Whiteman says he and his girlfriend were assured by Palmer Court Manager Karen Grenko that the tenant would be evicted, the couple later learned the man was allowed to stay.

Whiteman started carrying a hammer and encouraged his girlfriend to carry a club. When asked about the weapon, Whiteman told Palmer Court staff that if the man “did anything aggressive toward us, I’m gonna put this hammer through his skull.”

Within days of making the threat, Whiteman was handed a three-day eviction notice by Minkevitch for threatening to kill the other tenant.

For privacy reasons, Minkevitch was limited in how extensively he could comment on the incident. “I can imagine, from his vantage point, what [Whiteman was] perceiving,” Minkevitch says. “I also fully support our team in the collective decisions with respect to this particular incident.”

Perhaps Whiteman’s criminal history played a factor in his immediate eviction, but he believes other factors contributed to his eviction—such as him taking his complaints to the City and the media as well as him requesting an audit of Palmer Court.

Minkevitch doesn’t give much credence to Whiteman’s speculation, however.

“We didn’t do anything without legal counsel,” Minkevich says. “We have a lot of checks in our system.”

Kerry Bate, director of the Salt Lake County Housing Authority, couldn’t speak to the specifics of Whiteman’s eviction, but says, in general, treatment considerations might play a role in that type of dispute. “If [an] individual is tied up with Valley Mental Health, for example, and getting treatment to help them deal with their issues—we’d be more tolerant with that person’s situation.”

Whiteman says that Palmer Court manager Grenko did indeed say that the mental health of the second individual was a factor in their decision making. While Palmer Court could not comment on their tenants’ history, a criminal search of the tenant who made the second threat does show a record of mental health treatment going back to 2000.

Regardless of who’s at fault, Bate says, the bad news is that low-income housing is extremely limite, with more than 7,000 household families on the waiting list for subsidized housing in the state. The Housing Authority hasn’t seen a wait like this in over a decade.

After being evicted from Palmer Court, Whiteman spent a month living in his car with his companion animal, a kitten named Pepe La Pew, until he found housing close to the University of Utah. Although resettled, Whiteman is still angry over the treament he got from Palmer Court.

“I didn’t even want to be there near the end of it,” he says. “But the pretenses they [evicted me] for were pretty screwed up.”

 
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