Unexpected phone call reveals much about Giorgio

| June 30, 2022 | 0 Comments

GIORGIO and his pal Francesca take a selfie a while back.

My cell phone rang. “Hello, Helene? It’s Franco Giorgio!”

I was amazed and delighted that Giorgio decided to get in touch. After two months in Los Angeles County care, I think he needed to feel a connection with someone from his Larchmont Boulevard days, even if his name had changed.

When asked about the different name, he said that Giorgio was his middle name and he always used his middle name.

It was weeks later that I learned that Franco Giorgio Iervolino wasn’t his name, either.

Leaving the Boulevard

Giorgio told me that, back on April 20, he was perplexed when the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department approached him on the Boulevard. “I was with my shopping cart and they picked me up and detached me from the shopping cart,” explained Giorgio. “I was very astonished and very sad.”

According to eyewitnesses, there was a team of four outreach workers, law enforcement support and ambulance drivers sent to pick up Giorgio. He was transferred on a gurney. After so many years of freedom on the streets, Giorgio must have been petrified about what would happen to him.

Help awaited

Giorgio explained that he had been taken for three days to “USC,” County USC Hospital, to stabilize, then to the mental health hospital where he is now. Part of his evaluation includes having a judge decree what should happen next.

“The judge decided on a conservatorship. Then I’m going to Beverly Hills,” he said. “Beverly Hills” refers to a low-supervision housing facility where Giorgio hopes he will be placed.

Because of federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) laws about privacy, I can’t get confirmation on any of this that Giorgio tells me, but county mental health hospitals have doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and educators on staff to ready people for better lives, and this often involves assigning them a conservator to oversee their decisions, especially those that pertain to financial, mental and medical decisions. These conservatorships are not those titled “probate,” such as the one famously established for Britney Spears. More typically, people in Giorgio’s situation would not enter into a “forever” arrangement, but a conservatorship for a year of support, with the ability to extend the conservatorship if necessary. That step occurs before placement in community-based housing.

The next move

Before Giorgio is eligible for placement, however, he needs to be diagnosed, put on medicines that address his particular mental health problems, and worked with to make certain he understands what is happening to him and what behaviors are expected.

“I need your help, Miss Helene,” he implores. “I want to get out of here. It’s been two months! I need to go to Beverly Hills.”

I understand his eagerness to go somewhere that feels more like home, and I assure him that everyone is looking out for him; he just needs to be patient. That seems to mollify him.

Are conservatorships the best answer?

Not everyone would agree that conservatorships are the best way to care for the homeless people with mental problems. Slate.com, in the Feb. 2, 2022 article, “California is Fighting To Make It Easier To Put People Under Conservatorships” by Henry Grabar, reports that “civil rights advocates and many people with disabilities [claim] that long-term conservatorship is unethical and illegal.” The article continues: “Susan Mizner, the director of the disability rights program at the ACLU, has said that conservatorship is America’s ‘most extreme deprivation of civil liberties, aside from the death penalty.’”

There’s also the consideration of money. Alan Mozes reports the findings of researcher Kristen Choi in the Jan. 19, 2022 article, “Conservatorships Keep the Homeless in Psychiatric Wards Too Long: Study” in “Health Day.” “Kristen Choi’s team estimates that it costs $767 per day (nearly $280,000 per year) to care for a homeless person on a psychiatric ward in California, compared to less than $14,000 to provide them with year-round housing.”

Others vehemently support the extensive use of conservatorships, no matter the financial burden. In the “Slate.com” article, above, it is reported that San Francisco Mayor London Breed in 2019 said, “’Conservatorships allows us to provide the wraparound services needed to stabilize people … Allowing them to deteriorate on our streets when they are incapable of caring for themselves is not humane.’”

Giorgio — today and tomorrow?

When asked what his day is like, Giorgio tells me, “I wake up and have breakfast, and I can watch TV or go outside and drink coffee. I like to play pool!”

“Any therapy?” I ask.

“There’s group exercise, we talk about food, psychology groups. Not therapy, but information.”

The goal of mental hospitals is to ready people for placement elsewhere. Depending on how much Giorgio understands about what is expected of him and whether he is deemed capable of following rules, he will be placed in a closed or open facility; meaning one where he cannot leave the grounds, or one where he is allowed to leave, but where he is expected to take his medicines and check back in at the designated time every day.

The Beverly Hills facility he mentioned is an open facility, which, understandably, is what Giorgio wants and says he was promised. “I come home every night! I take my medicine!” he explains.

What does he want to do with that semi-freedom? “Ride the bus,” he replies.

Another time when he called me recently, Giorgio excitedly told me he had received his photo album of his family, which had been buried in his cart. He asked if I knew how that happened, which I did.

When Giorgio expressed interest in locating his album, word got to Marilyn Wells, the co-founder of Stories from the Frontline and former Chronicle columnist of “The NIMBY Diaries.” After Gary Gilbert and John Welborne secured the shopping cart when Giorgio was taken to County USC in April, neighbor Wells arranged to store the cart in case Giorgio needed anything from it. Giorgio was very touched that so many people were looking out for him.

Speaking with Giorgio on the telephone, it’s clear that he’s made great strides. We can have more of a conversation, rather than his normal monologue. He asks how I am and tells me to have a nice day. He calls me every day now and once I was out at dinner with friends when he called, so I said I couldn’t talk right then. The next time he asked how my dinner had been and said that he was glad I was seeing my friends.

Another time he called to wish my family a happy Father’s Day, even though the day is bittersweet for him since he’s lost track of his two sons. He’s called to say he would love to cook again, but with a walker he cannot stand up long enough to accomplish kitchen work, so he was thinking of taking a computer class.

Most recently he called to say his Italian friend Francesca would be in touch to give me some things to hold until he left the hospital. She was leaving soon for Italy and wasn’t certain when she’d be back.

Francesca Maggia

Last month, Francesca and I met for coffee at Peet’s, one of Giorgio’s old stomping grounds. She shared her Giorgio story.

She, her husband Claudio Maggia and their two children moved to Los Angeles five years ago, after having spent three years in Hong Kong for work. They hailed from a small town near Venice, Italy. Francesca initially met Giorgio one day in front of Starbucks, and he asked her for a coffee. She found him charming and he opened up to her, a countryman.

They have met every Friday for coffee until Giorgio entered the hospital. Francesca even found his sister Bianca on WhatsApp and now, after 25 years of silence, Giorgio talks to his sister every Friday on Francesca’s phone.

His sister was the benefactor who paid for Giorgio to move to the United States — twice. The first time that Bianca gave him money, he spent it before buying a plane ticket. The second time, he set off on his culinary adventure.

Giorgio had mentioned to me that his mother had cousins in the restaurant business, but said that he first went to Miami, then New York, before landing in Los Angeles. Francesca just knows about the Los Angeles part of his journey. According to her, his mother’s cousins owned Marino’s, and he worked there before working at other notable Los Angeles restaurants. Something happened and a rift occurred, and he and the Marino family never spoke again.

The biggest revelation of our talk, though, is that Giorgio is a name he took as his street name so he could maintain some control over his story. His real name is Pio Franco Iervolino, named after Saint Pio.

Apparently, prior to birth, he was expected to die either in his mother’s womb or shortly thereafter. The whole family prayed to Saint Pio to save him and, when he thrived, they named him after his savior saint.

It also turns out that mental illness runs in his family. Francesca says Pio Franco had a brother whose first name was Franco and he, too, worked, got married, divorced, and slid into mental illness, also ending up on the streets. He wouldn’t accept help from the family or anyone else.

Italy is a harsher place to be homeless than sunny, relatively mild Los Angeles. There, summers are brutally hot; winters are frigid.

One wintry night in Naples, there was an important, well-attended dance concert at the local Arts Hall. When the horde of attendees exited the performance, they were met by Franco, frozen to death, at the bottom of the stairs.

Can there be help for all?

When we see how much care Pio Franco / Giorgio now is getting, we cannot help but wonder: “Given how many people, how many medical personnel, how much time and attention it takes to get him on a healthier path, and given the number of homeless individuals on the streets, is it conceivable that there’s enough time in the day to help more than a drop of those in need?”

Pio Franco is lucky and seems to know that. He seems to recognize the support he has from the community.

He makes certain to tell me, “The people of Larchmont love me and care about me.”

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