Elizabeth Tilley creates Royal Haven home for men with mental illness
By Julie Washington, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Elizabeth Tilley has made it her life mission to help people with mental illness. It’s her way of giving back.
Tilley, 60, wears her hair in an elaborate braid coiled on top of her head. Behind her warm smile, there’s a hint of steely resolve.
Raised in London by a mother with mental illness, Tilley came to Cleveland as a teenager to marry an American. The marriage ended, she fell in with the wrong crowd, then went to prison more than once.
She got hooked on crack cocaine and alcohol. She got kicked out of the country, re-entered illegally, and landed in prison again.
Then she reinvented herself.
She beat her addictions thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, and gained legal immigration status. She learned to read from a prison Bible, graduated from Cuyahoga Community College and earned a master’s degree in nonprofit administration at John Carroll University.
She rescued a house scheduled for demolition in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood and turned it into Royal Haven, an adult care facility for men with mental illness. Now it’s home for Chris, Demetrius, David and Johnny. (The Plain Dealer is identifying them by first name only for privacy reasons.)
“They’re my guys,” she said affectionately.
These men each have long lists of health problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, incontinence and dementia due to stroke, visual impairment, bipolar disease and personality disorders.
Some have burned bridges with family members who, fed up with their erratic behavior, asked Tilley to take them in. All probably would be homeless, or in jail, if it weren’t for Royal Haven or another one of the nearly 1,000 adult facilities in Ohio that shelter people with a range of mental health issues.
Tilley loves her residents, even when they curse at her or act like stubborn children. They refuse to bathe, get angry when their feces-smeared clothes are thrown away, and steal one another’s dessert just to be ornery.
“After they do it, you know they’re sorry,” she said. Bad behavior is grounds for eviction, but she said she could never actually do it.
Tilley was recently awarded Tri-C’s first Rising Star Alumni Award for her work with Royal Haven.
She knows that people with mental illness are stigmatized, but she celebrates their humanity.
“Yes, you can notice peculiarities in their behavior,” she said. “But once you talk to them and get to know then, they are people like everybody else. And society is not always kind to them.”
The task she’s taken upon herself is incredibly hard work. “I was a lot of work at one time,” she said. “Somebody stopped and didn’t overlook me. That’s why I do it.”
Sometimes, she asks God why she is still alive, when all of her buddies from the old days of selling stolen TVs and passing bad checks are dead.
“My job is not done. He still has work for me to do,” she said. “I’m not going to put my light under a bed. I’m going to share it.”
The four-bedroom condemned home on East 109th Street was a beauty when it was first built in the 1920s, with a large bay window looking out on a wide, inviting front porch.
When Tilley first saw it, the house had deteriorated after years of vacancy. The porch was still there but the glass in the bay window was gone, along with exterior doors, plumbing and electrical wires. The roof leaked.
It would be perfect, Tilley thought, for an adult facility for men with mental illness.
She had wanted to open her own group home after hearing about a run-down group home in Cleveland. She knew she could do better. Tilley bought the vacant house in 2014 for about $10,000 and spent a year fixing it up. Her John Carroll University classmates even helped paint the rooms.
Cleveland Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell considers Royal Haven an asset to the community. “She took a blighted house and turned it around,” he said.
Hobson frequently sees two of the Royal Haven men at Sunday mass and community dinners. “Putting people together and celebrating diversity is a good lesson for life,” Hobson said. “The more people can be aware of differences and accept them, the healthier we are as a community.”
Some John Carroll professors doubted whether Tilley, an ex-felon with no prior experience with group homes, would ever make her dream happen, said Elizabeth Stiles, an associate professor of political science at John Carroll.
Stiles saw Tilley’s determination, intelligence and confidence. “She wants to give back and make things right,” Stiles said.
Royal Haven opened in October 2016 with a license to shelter up to five men. Tilley dreams of renovating the third floor so that Royal Haven can expand to nine residents.
When you give people with mental illness a stable home, love and good food, “you’ve gotten their attention,” she said. “They know that you care.”
Safe housing helps people with mental illness focus on wellness, said Mindy Vance, chief of recovery support for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Not having to worry about how to stay warm or where to get a meal “frees up mental energy,” Vance said.
Living in a group home like Royal Haven also makes Tilley’s guys feel less isolated. “It helps them remember they are a person and not a diagnosis,” Vance said.
Life at Royal Haven
Inside Royal Haven, visitors find a spacious first floor that includes a living room filled with comfortable sofas. Nothing looks or smells institutional except the plastic covering the sofa cushions, and the medication logs for each resident stacked on an end table.
Tilley, who hires ex-felons as her support staff, spends mornings cooking the day’s meals before leaving for her job as a hair stylist. She comes back at 10 p.m. and stays overnight.
The men have bonded with each other in the time they’ve been here. “They have a relationship, but it’s different from any other relationship you may think of,” Tilley said. “Because they don’t always speak to each other, and they don’t have great conversations. Some of them can’t articulate how they feel or what they are thinking. That’s why they are a vulnerable population.”
On a cool fall night, Tilley’s guys filled their plates with Italian sausage sandwich with green peppers and onions, broccoli and fried potatoes.
“Elizabeth is a good cook,” said Demetrius, 71, who always sounds like a professor when he talks. “She prepares with expertise. She could have been a chef.”
Before he came to Royal Haven, a social worker found Demetrius living in his car, delirious and suffering from a dangerously high blood sugar level. Demetrius spent seven months in a VA hospital.
Chris, 57, is the talkative one whose face lights up in big toothless grins. He almost died about a year ago from an undiagnosed brain infection. Tilley kept sending Chris back to the hospital until doctors discovered that his previously implanted brain shunt had become infected. He underwent emergency surgery to remove it.
David, 57, was an RTA driver for 25 years. After retiring, he used his pension to start a chain of barbershops and bought a large home in Medina. Life was good until a series of strokes left
him with vascular dementia. David is grateful to be alive.
Johnny, 66, arrived at Royal Haven from his previous facility with no shoes on his feet. “They had this man, and they didn’t give him some shoes,” Tilley said, still outraged a year later.
She discovered that Johnny did not have his birth certificate. Without it, Royal Haven could not receive government benefits to cover the cost of his housing. It took Tilley months to locate Johnny’s birth certificate in Selma, Alabama.
All the men there have Medicare or Medicaid or VA benefits that pay for medical expenses, she said.
Running Royal Haven is her way of thanking the people who helped her become what she is today.
“Gratitude comes from knowing, even if it’s not appreciated by that person, it’s making society a better place for people like them to live in,” she said.
Jan. 24, 2019