Suspected arsonist’s mother speaks out: “He’s fallen through the cracks”

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Tuesday morning, Buffalo Police say 35-year-old Joseph Aronica III set his own apartment building on fire, leaving nine people without a home.

“He’s fallen through the cracks,” said Aronica’s mother Lillian Lombardo.

She said Aronica’s been arrested more than 50 times. His latest charges are for Arson, Criminal Mischief, and Reckless Endangerment.

“Somebody could have been killed or hurt really bad,” Lombardo told News 4 Thursday.

“I don’t know where to turn anymore.”

Aronica suffers from Schizoaffective Disorder and  has struggled with mental health since he was a kid.

His family says he’s often on the streets, panhandling and doing drugs.

Lombardo has written public officials, called hospitals, even pleaded with her son’s defense attorneys to get him longer sentences.

But he’s over 18, and she no longer has the ability to make decisions for him.

“Jail is my only sanity. When he’s in there I know he’s eating, I know he’s got a roof over his head and he’s safe,” Lombardo told News 4.

She’s desperate for help, and feels no matter what she does her son doesn’t seem to get the help he needs.

Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Erie County Kenneth Houseknecht told News 4 this isn’t an uncommon problem.

He said his office gets dozens of calls like that every day.

“And that’s just us,” he said.

Over the past several decades the number of beds at mental health facilities nationwide has plummeted, he said.

“There was a push to de-institutionalize, which in a way was a good thing to do.”

Houseknecht believes this is a classic case of unintended consequences; one of those consequences is less availability of immediate mental health care.

“Sure, they can check into ECMC, they can get some emergency response. God bless the people there for the work that they’re doing, but they’re overwhelmed with numbers,” he said.

Lombardo wants her son, who she calls Joey, to get long-term care somewhere. But he has to want it, she said.

“It’s his choice. But if you’re not in your right mind, you can’t make good choices.”

She told News 4 her son hasn’t been himself in years.

“My son died a long time ago. This is not my son.”

Helping people like Aronica is not an easy fix, Houseknecht told News 4. But more resources are needed, and badly. Houseknecht stressed the importance of addressing mental health at the front end, and providing people with proactive ways to maintain mental health; that he said, costs money.

Lombardo, who heard from her son from jail Wednesday, wants to see meaningful change happen while he’s still here.

Aronica will return to Buffalo City Court Monday to face his charges.

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