House with up to 15 disabled tenants called “death trap”
It’s 90 degrees outside and there’s no sign of movement at 40 Jarvis Place in Alorton. The small, single-story house, surrounded by a 6-foot-tall fence, is silent. A ‘no trespassing’ sign hangs on a door.
Despite its unassuming appearance, the house is the source of a struggle between state, local and legal powers surrounding the lives of at least eight adults with developmental disabilities living inside.
The state claims the house, located at 40 Jarvis Place, is a nursing home facility that needs regulation or must be shut down. The owner, however, denies this and says the house is a boarding house where she provides independence to residents with developmental impairments.
If the home was shut down, it is unclear where residents would go, and the state has yet to present a plan for what would happen to them.
For the past two years, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department on Aging have conducted investigations at the house. Although the state failed to shut down the home in 2017, officials say they are pursuing further legal action against the home’s owner. Spokesmen for the two departments say the investigation is continuing, but they cannot comment on it.
The state has claimed residents, anywhere from 15 to 20 of them, are mistreated at Jarvis Place. Past inspections cite deadbolts on doors and screwed-shut windows as proof residents are trapped inside.
“It was like a death trap,” Alorton chief code enforcer Anthony LeFlore said of his 2017 inspection of the house.
Gloria Elam runs the house on Jarvis Place. Almost all have developmental impairments and, up until recently, were under her legal guardianship. She said eight people currently live in the house, although that number was as high as 16 in 2017.
Elam said she’s been helping the residents, some of whom the state assigned to her, for 18 years. She does not know why the state is investigating her now, she said, and made thousands of dollars worth of changes in the past year to improve the safety of the house.
A tour of the house revealed many of the state’s safety concerns appear to have been fixed.
“The state is not worried about me. The state is not concerned about me. They know who I am, they know what I’ve done for these people,” she said. “A lot of things have been done just because people had the power to do it.”
Elam has and continues to deny allegations by the state of abuse and endangerment.
A family member of a previous tenant alleged in 2017 that her mother was locked inside the house and was unable to contact family or friends.
Other family members, however, say Elam’s home has been a lifesaver for family members who, for the first time in their lives, seem to be happy and independent.
“It’s been absolutely remarkable,” said Jeff Brasel, whose brother has been at Jarvis Place for 15 years. “Michael’s happy at Miss Elam’s home. He’s thriving.”
In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office filed an injunction request, asking the court to immediately shut down Jarvis Place.
In December, the injunction was denied. The state is seeking further legal action.
Inside the house
In June 2017, LeFlore said he was driving near 40 Jarvis Place when Department on Aging officials flagged him down. He said they told him they were trying to inspect the house, but no one was letting them inside.
From outside the house, LeFlore said he could see several code violations, including wooden fencing that had been inserted into windows, according to his inspection report from June 26, 2017. LeFlore said he asked a man working in the yard to knock on the door, which Elam answered. She reluctantly let them inside, he said.
“Ms. Elam came and locked us inside an entry area. It was deadbolted down, and everywhere we attempted to go, it was like a maze,” he said in an interview.
LeFlore and the department’s inspections, which were available through court records, reported:
▪ Bolted locks on doors.
▪ Coded keypads.
▪ Garden fencing and plexiglass covering windows.
▪ Windows screwed closed or missing handles.
The facility, composed of three small buildings mashed together, had many safety hazards, LeFlore said in an interview — echoing the findings from his report.
LeFlore and state agencies reported some of the bedrooms in the house were closet-sized, with mere inches between twin beds and walls. In other cases, furniture was pressed against doorways and emergency escape would have been impossible.
“If there was a fire, everyone in the house would perish,” LeFlore said in an interview.
Elam told inspectors that 13 people lived in the house, although inspectors interviewed 15 residents. On an occupancy permit, Elam listed eight people living in the house.
A Department of Public Health inspection later reported 16 people were residing there.
Photos of the house obtained from LeFlore’s inspection report showed deadbolts, boarded windows and modifications made to create numerous sleeping quarters. One photo showed a bathtub with a door located about 3 feet above it.
Another showed an air conditioner on a wall, unplugged, with the cord padlocked to the wall.
LeFlore said no air conditioners were running inside the house and it was incredibly hot.
“Everyone that was inside 40 Jarvis was sweating profusely,” he wrote in his report
LeFlore issued Elam several citations involving the fire code and exceeding her occupancy permit. His reports said the carbon monoxide and smoke detectors were not working and that there were exposed electrical wires.
The violations could result in a fine for Elam, but other than that, LeFlore said, the city can’t do much.
“She has these people trapped inside this place, and we can’t really do anything about it,” he said.
On June 28, one year after LeFlore’s report, Elam gave the BND a tour of Jarvis Place.
The front door of the house led directly to a small entryway with a TV in the corner, several sofa chairs and decorations. An air conditioner was running at 50 degrees.
A walk-through of the house showed its outer appearance was deceptive — while the house appeared small from the outside, the interior was large and separated into a dozen separate rooms.
Two large rooms were broken up into smaller sections with wooden shelves and partitions, creating residents’ bedrooms. Elam walked through the dormitory-style rooms, pointing out new clothes, books, artwork and other personal effects.
In one room, a man sat on the end of a twin bed and read a book.
Racks of food and drinks were stacked in two kitchens, one of which included an industrial-sized fridge. Several rooms served as communal spaces — one had a pool table and ornate decorations; another had a large TV and several diner-style booths.
The house appeared clean and well-kept. Smoke alarms and exit signs were scattered throughout the house.
History of Jarvis Place
Eighteen years ago, Elam moved half of her furniture into the house next door.
“The Lord told me to do this in my sleep,” she said. “I already owned the building. And I asked the Lord what did he want me to do, and he told me.”
Elam said she took her fridge, stove and washer and dryer from her house, withdrew her pension money and started MD Community Behavioral Apartment Settings Inc.
She said most of her residents came to her through word of mouth. Others were referred by doctors or nursing homes. The Department on Aging sent her several people to take care of, she said.
St. Clair County judges have granted Elam guardianship of most of the residents, according to court records. The records do not include information on how a person was referred to Elam.
In 2005, Elam applied to become an assisted living center. She was told, however, her residents needed to be 60 or older. Instead, she started operating under the title of landlord.
Elam said beginning in 2005, the state knew and approved of Jarvis Place.
“I talked to the state lady two or three times a year keeping her informed on what I do,” Elam said. “And she always says, ‘Gloria, you’re not our property but I’m glad things are going well down there.’ And she said, ‘if anybody calls up here with any complaints, we let them know we know about you.’”
In 2005, Curtis Hooks filed a small claims suit against Elam, alleging she held him against his will inside her boarding house. In a BND story at the time, Hooks said 17 other men and women in the house were kept from leaving or making contact with friends or family.
Elam denied the allegations to a reporter in 2005.
The outcome of Hooks’ case is not clear because the case was expunged in 2007.
The city’s chief code inspector at the time, Ron Thompson, sought to close down the boarding house, according to the BND story.
“She’s basically got a boarding house there that hasn’t been approved or inspected,” he said in a 2005 interview.
But the house was not shut down.
In August 2016, the IDPH acted on a complaint about Elam’s place and went to inspect the building. IDPH did not specify where the complaint came from or what it consisted of.
The report noted:
▪ A “garbage bag filled with items sitting in the hallway outside R8’s bedroom with flies swarming around it.”
▪ All air conditioners were off.
▪ No residents were seen around the building or outside, and none moved without being escorted by another person.
Illinois Department of Public Health agents interviewed residents in the home in August. Eleven of the 15 residents were reported to be receiving personal or nursing care or both, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
In reports, inspectors claimed most of the residents said they got their medicine from staff.
“Some residents knew how many pills they take but none knew the names or had access to them,” the report read.
Five months after the interviews, IDPH sent a letter to Elam informing her she was in violation of the Nursing Home Care Act. The letter said she had three options: discharge her residents, apply for a license or close the place.
According to the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act, a nursing home is any facility that provides personal or nursing care for three or more people. Personal care is defined as assistance with meals, dressing, movement, bathing or other personal needs, or supervision of the well-being of a person incapable of maintaining it themselves.
The act also includes dozens of other specifications about what constitutes a nursing home facility as well as exceptions to the rule.
Elam wrote a response to the state’s letter three weeks later, saying she did not provide medical care to residents and merely rents property to several people.
IDPH passed authority over to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, according to an IDPH spokesman, because the department does not have authority over unlicensed nursing homes.
In October 2017, the state sought an injunction against Elam and her company, accusing her of running an unauthorized nursing home and demanding she cease operations.
The request for an injunction includes 195 pages of state and local reports, photos and inspections that the state says are proof that Elam is running an unlicensed and unsafe nursing home.
Elam and her attorneys argued in a court filing in December that Elam was “nothing more than a landlord to her tenants,” and the company had been “operating peaceably and uncontestedly for over 10 years, providing a safe, happy residence for their tenants.”
Two months later, the state’s requested injunction was denied by Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn, who said the state had not proved Elam was providing nursing care to residents.
However, McGlynn ordered that Elam allow state agents to have access to residents in order to assess them and their needs.
McGlynn has granted Elam custody of at least 11 people who live in the house. He said he was not able to comment on guardianship matters or pending litigation.
A spokesman with the Attorney General’s Office said the state is pursuing further legal action against Elam.
Elam said Jarvis Place allows people with mental impairments to get the help they need and live independently.
“They no longer take a lot of medicine. They are stabilized, they have a home. They know they’re cared for,” she said. “They are treated like human beings. I seem to have gotten a lot of flack about that.”
Jeff Brasel’s brother, Michael Brasel, has lived at Jarvis Place for about 15 years. Jeff said his brother, who has learning impairments and behavioral issues, went through various state facilities in the metro-east.
None of them, he said, improved Michael’s well-being like Jarvis Place did.
When Michael was in group homes and living facilities, Jeff said, he smoked, drank and was overweight. He was in and out of the hospital and did not seem happy like he had when he was in high school at Belleville East.
At some point in 2004 or 2005, Michael was referred to Jarvis Place. Jeff said he does not remember who referred his brother to Elam.
“Over the next year or two, the change was just remarkable,” Jeff said. “Michael lost a lot of weight, stopped smoking, stopped bad habits. When he went in, he was on 12 or 13 medicines. Now, he’s on three. He’s more independent and socially adjusted and happy than we’ve seen him in a long time.”
Jeff said whenever he visits Elam, the other residents seem similarly happy.
“My first reaction was this is an interesting place. It’s a very old home, it’s been modified over the years,” he said. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. Every time I go there, the place is sparkling clean.”
The state, however, maintains Jarvis Place is not a healthy environment for those living there.
In reports, IDPH said agents interviewed 15 residents who varied in age from 42 to 84 and had various health conditions such as schizophrenia, scoliosis and manic depression.
Residents told IDPH officials in April they had been there for various amounts of time. Two said they had been admitted in 2015. Others said they had been there for as long as 15 years.
Inspectors noted in interviews that residents said they liked living at the boarding house.
“Enjoy living here,” one interview report said. “Miss Gloria cashes my check and will buy things for me. Pays my rent, buys my toiletries. Miss Gloria (is) like a mom to me.”
Others said Elam provided them with spending money, took them to church on Wednesdays and took them to the doctor. Several told inspectors they were never locked in or out and had no trouble getting outside.
In a report, inspectors said residents “appeared guarded and unsure of their answers when interviewed.”
“All residents had a flat affect with hardly any emotion,” the report read. “They responded with a distinct hesitation to answer, looking at (Elam) for confirmation they could answer.”
Elam said residents were extremely upset by the presence of the state agents. She said state workers questioned residents relentlessly on various occasions.
In July, one month after their inspection, the Department on Aging notified Judge McGlynn they believed six residents were being abused by Elam.
“I am writing to notify you that on 7/26/17, Gloria Elam, guardian of (name redacted), a disabled person, was substantiated an abuser of (name redacted),” the letters stated.
Two months later, they notified him they believed four more residents were found to be abused.
No residents were removed from Jarvis Place.
Safety and other issues
In reports, the state said Jarvis Place also posed a danger to residents because of fire hazards in the house.
In July, a State Fire Marshal inspection reported 40 violations at Jarvis Place, including locks on doors preventing emergency escape, exposed electrical wires, blocked exit paths and the lack of a fire alarm system.
Elam said after the state’s inspections, she spent “tens of thousands of dollars making numerous changes to the residence.”
In the latest inspection in September, all violations were cleared at Jarvis Place by the State Fire Marshal.
Most residents said Elam handled all their money, including food stamp accounts and Link cards.
LeFlore said in an interview he is concerned Elam uses the people in her boarding house for monetary gain.
“They get SNAP benefits, Social Security, disability benefits,” he said in an interview. “The state provides her with money to go out in the community and do things. You can sit there at that place all day long and you don’t see any movement.”
Elam, however, said the residents receive their own Social Security checks and handle their own money. She said they pay rent to her, about $600 to $625 a month for food and board, and extra money is used to purchase whatever they want, including brand name clothes and shoes.
Elam said she does not receive money from the state to take care of residents.
“When someone leaves, I let Public Aid know and return the Social Security check. I do it immediately,” she said.
Jeff Brasel said while he understands the state is doing its job by investigating possible abuse at Jarvis Place, they do not have any real evidence to go off.
He said the complaints the state received against Elam were false, and the photos the state produced were misleading and taken out of context.
“They’ve got it in their mind that they’ve got to shut this place down when there’s no evidence that anything bad is happening. When in fact, there’s plenty of evidence to say otherwise,” he said.
Brasel added, however, Illinois does have a history of widespread abuse in group homes.
A Chicago Tribune investigation in 2016 found hundreds of taxpayer-funded group homes in Illinois were the source of abuse and neglect of residents. At least 42 people had died in seven years due to inadequate care.
“As a public servant, there is the law that is there to protect people from unsafe and unscrupulous people and situations,” Brasel said.
“This is not one of those cases.”
In a 2016 study, Illinois ranked as the fourth-worst state in the country for providing services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The group conducting the study, United Cerebral Palsy, has ranked Illinois as one of the four worst states in providing these services since 2007.
The report said this was due to “the small portion of people and resources dedicated to those in small or home-like settings.”
Advocacy groups such as Arc for Illinois say Illinois, as one of the few states to rely on state-run institutions to care for developmentally disabled adults, should focus more on community-centered care.
Jeff Brasel said there are not a lot of options in Illinois, or the rest of the country, for developmentally disabled adults like his brother. Jarvis Place, he said, should serve as a model for an alternative to state-run facilities.
“The state should look at what’s going on down there and say this is a good thing,” he said. “Everything going on is what the system is supposed to be doing and this home is doing it without help from the state. So they could learn from what’s going on down here.”
Elam’s attorney, Van Lear Eckert, said Elam looked into applying for various types of care licenses but was always assured by the state she did not need one.
“All she is doing is renting a room for these individuals and providing them with a sense of community and friendship,” he said. “So therefore the state told her there would be no need to have a license.”
Eckert said Jarvis Place has helped the state because without it, the state would be paying thousands of dollars for residents to stay elsewhere.
“Everybody is doing extremely well, it’s the kind of situation that benefits not only the tenants but also the state because they don’t have to pay anything to take care of these folks,” he said. “Otherwise the state would be paying to have them in some sort of facility.”
According to Arc for Illinois, in 2015, the state spent about $248,000 per person in state-run facilities and $428 million total.
Elam also said state facilities such as nursing homes and mental health centers referred many of the people at Jarvis Place to her in the first place. Most of this was done through word of mouth, she said.
“The people I have are the people no one can do anything with,” she said. “Those are the people I have.”
Elam and Eckert said the state also does not have a long-term plan for where residents would go if they were forced to leave Jarvis Place.
“They were going to put them all in local motels and provide them with a voucher or SNAP card, with no structure, no guidance, no oversight whatsoever and leave them there,” Eckert said.
“The judge is the one that asked them those questions. He said, ‘you’re asking me to shut her down and you don’t even have a place for them to go?’
Officials with the Attorney’s General office said they are pursuing further legal action but declined to provide more details on the matter. Officials also declined to comment on Elam’s allegations.
In 2017, Patrece Denham filed a lawsuit against Elam, alleging that Denham’s mother was held against her will inside 40 Jarvis Place for three years.
Elam denies Denham’s allegations and said Denham’s complained to IDPH, spurring the state’s current actions against her.
Denham’s claims her mother, Patrece Curtis’, was locked in a small bedroom and not allowed to leave.
The suit alleges Curtis was not given all of her prescribed medication but was heavily medicated on psychotropic drugs. Denham alleged in the suit that Elam listed her mother’s income as zero even though she received Social Security disability benefits and food stamps.
“(Curtis) was subjected to great physical and emotional pain and humiliation, was deprived of her liberty, and was otherwise damaged and injured,” the suit alleged.
In December 2016, Denham was escorted by Alorton police to Elam’s house and took her mother home. Elam reported to police that Curtis had been kidnapped.
Three days later, Denham was arrested by Alorton police. However, court records indicate there are no charges filed against her in regards to the kidnapping allegation.
Alorton Police Department has denied numerous Freedom of Information Act request for police records concerning 40 Jarvis Place.
Denham filed for emergency guardianship of her mother and, after being released from jail, Denham was granted custody of her mother.
Denham said she could not comment due to legal reasons.
Elam said she originally did not want Patrece Curtis to stay at the house because she “did not fit in.” She said the Department on Aging, however, contacted Elam and insisted Curtis stay in the house.
The matter appeared to be remain unresolved as of July. The lawsuit is ongoing and Curtis’ guardianship status was unclear.
Elam said she has been unfairly targeted by the state for problems which have been exaggerated.
For example, the state and Alorton’s inspections said lattice covering two windows of the house as a fire hazard, saying they could prevent emergency escape. Elam, however, said the state had previously allowed her to keep them.
“All you did was reach up there and pull them out because they’re up there with little tacks,” she said. “Public Health asked me in 2012, ‘why do you have the lattice on the window?’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s decoration, don’t you like it?’ I have to do stuff on a cheap scale to make my stuff look pretty. And they did not make me take it down. I got accused of abuse because of a piece of lattice.”
Elam also said in regards to the locked doors, she replaced the house’s original locks with key pads so each person had their own code to get in.
“I didn’t get in trouble because I did anything wrong. I didn’t get in trouble because anyone got hurt. I got in trouble just for being here, for being black,” Elam said.
LeFlore, however, said he is still worried about Elam’s house and the safety of those inside.
“I’m just concerned about the people in there. It’s like Fort Knox the way she’s got it locked down,” he said.
Jeff Brasel said the state should be helping Elam instead of trying to shut her down.
“They should be doing everything in their power to make sure these people stay where they’re happy and stable and healthy,” he said. “And not pursue the alternative, which is to uproot them and put them in the same system that previously failed them and caused them harm.”
A spokesman at the Attorney General’s office said no additional details could be provided on the matter.