National News

Can a Subway Pusher Be Reformed? Yes, He Says, With Housing.

Posted June 11, 2018 4:12 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Carl Beamon lumbered through the halls of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on a Wednesday afternoon in May.

He made his way to the computer lab, where he settled between two other students. He liked getting to campus early. He liked being among fellow students, many of them young enough to be his grandchildren.

As he settled in for class, though, his tan baseball cap stayed on his head, left to cover scars from a very different time in his life. In 1991, Beamon attempted suicide. In 2001, he tried to push three people onto subway tracks. He went to prison for attempted murder and was paroled in 2007.

Now, he is one exam away from a master’s degree in criminal justice from John Jay.

“You’re never too old to learn. If I didn’t, I’d be sitting around. I don’t know what I’d be doing. It’s my activity. It’s what I do,” said Beamon, who now has a regimen of antipsychotic medication and therapy for his depression and schizophrenia.

Beamon, 68, was one of the first participants in a New York City program that provides subsidized apartments to ex-convicts with severe mental illness. The program, run by Project Renewal, a nonprofit, remains small with just 20 apartments. But city officials and social workers said Beamon, who had been homeless, shows what is possible when housing, medication and therapy are delivered in a coordinated way.

About 1,500 residents of city shelters are parolees and about 37 percent of them reported a mental health condition when they entered the shelter system, according to the Department of Homeless Services.

Advocates for parolees say that ideally, state prisons would help former inmates find permanent housing. But the city shelter system has become a de facto halfway house for hundreds of people.

Steven Banks, the city’s commissioner of social services, said more programs like the one that has helped Beamon are needed. “With about 1,500 state parolees in our shelters, including about 10 percent of single adults, this Project Renewal initiative shows that parolees can be discharged from state prisons to housing instead of city shelters, which is a better result for everyone.”

Beamon said he got a second chance at a life that went off track.

He grew up in the borough of Brooklyn in New York and attended Boys High School, where he played defensive end on the football team. His father was a taxi driver, then a bus driver and later ran his own moving business. His mother worked at a factory and later became a nurse’s aide. The couple paved the way for their son to attend Shaw University in North Carolina.

But Beamon said that was when he began using drugs and experienced his first psychotic breaks.

His sister, Cheryl Beamon, said family members hid his illness. “My grandmother and my mother became aware of it in college,” she said, recalling how she saw a letter her mother had written to her brother saying, “Be strong. Be careful. Take care of yourself.”

Beamon described himself as a “functional addict” who eventually worked for his father. “I worked all day every day, lifting and moving. I came home in the evenings and got high,” he said.

He married. But the crack epidemic swallowed him up, and for years, he wallowed in drugs and his mental illness. He spent days that added up to months in hospital psychiatric wards.

In 1991, he rammed his head into a moving subway car in an attempted suicide. He lost his left eye and now wears a prosthetic one. Ten years later, he was in the news when in separate incidents on the same day, he tried to push three passengers onto the subway tracks. The third passenger was able to regain his balance and subdue Beamon.

Cheryl Beamon said she learned of her brother’s arrest through a co-worker who had seen an article.

Carl Beamon said, “I heard voices saying, ‘Do that.'”

He regrets what he did, he said. Medication, visits to a psychiatrist and studying each day, he said, have suppressed those voices.

Housing has been one of the biggest factors in his stability, he said, because former inmates need a place that can ground them.

“Once you’re situated and have somewhere to lay your head and come back to and you don’t have to worry about signing books and signing registration sheets for every night as you had to do in the men’s shelter and people stealing your stuff and worrying about your property,” he said, “you have the ability to work from there.” After he was released from prison he lived in a homeless shelter before learning about Project Renewal, a nonprofit that connects homeless people with shelter, housing and health care.

Felons often struggle to secure permanent housing because of their criminal histories.

“They would interview with providers, and providers would take one look at that rap sheet and say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t come here,'” said Susan Dan, deputy director at Project Renewal.

Beamon moved into one of Project Renewal’s first apartments in 2011. He was a student at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he later received a bachelor’s degree in political science and African-American studies.

Beamon contributes $202.40 per month to his rent, using some of his disability income. “I put my own little touches,” he said. “It’s perfect.”