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Apartment Complex Focuses on Mentally Ill

As homelessness too often accompanies mental illness in the United States, one project tackles both issues.
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In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safe and secure shelter would be considered one of the basic, bottom-rung human requirements, along with food, water, breathing and sex (not necessarily in that order). For thousands of mentally ill people, though, stable housing is as elusive as the attainment of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid.

Fortunately, groups across the country are working to change that, and in Santa Barbara, Calif., 38 clients of the community’s Mental Health Association this week moved into brand-new, downtown apartments built especially for them. For those few, the prospect of homelessness will evaporate.

“These apartments are a drop in the bucket,” said George Kaufmann, a member of the California state Mental Health Association board. “But it’s an exciting start.”

A survey conducted by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1999 found a need for nearly 3,000 additional housing units for the mentally ill in the Santa Barbara area alone, Kaufmann said. Those without housing either were on the streets, at risk of becoming homeless or in “subhousing” — for example, sleeping on someone’s couch.

“It just can’t be overstated how important housing is,” said Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara, which built the 51-unit project at a cost of more than $27 million.

Money came from numerous sources, including state and federal agencies and private donors. The city of Santa Barbara contributed $6.3 million, and a local bank offered a loan for a portion of the cost. The association had to show there was sufficient infrastructure support for such a housing project. Nearby transportation, grocery stores and medical services had to be available — even library services, Cameron explained.

The resulting Garden Street Center incorporates a community center on the ground floor where services for the mentally ill are offered, as well as work force housing, office space for the city and the Mental Health Association and conference space that will be available to the community.

Light and airy, with access to private patios and striking views of downtown and the mountains to the north, the four-story Garden Street Center is a prototype for the kind of housing that would well serve mentally ill clients all over the country.

Designed by Jan Hochhauser of Santa Barbara’s Hochhauser Blatter, the center happens to be directly across the street from the city’s planning department, which ensured the project met Santa Barbara’s rigid historical district design policies. It has the city’s classic stucco and red-tile roofs but also features beautifully designed, light-filled living spaces that don’t feel institutional.

“The idea is we’re creating neighborhoods,” Hochhauser said. “That you’re not finding your way to your living space down some dismal corridor. That we’ve got these courtyard neighborhoods. Also there’s the concept of defensible space in housing design, where there is a community space for access and circulation that provides protection and oversight. Also that the apartments get good sunlight, that they have some vegetation, that they’re generally uplifting.”

The project took more than eight years to complete from concept to move-in day. There were more than 300 applicants for the 38 apartments set aside for those with mental illness. Applicants had to meet a certain income level and, in addition to having some kind of mental illness, had to show they could live independently. The work force apartments will rent for about 60 percent of market. All of the apartments for the mentally ill will be available through federal Section 8 funding.

Cameron explained the mentally ill struggle with many challenges — delusions, fears, medication side effects, physical ailments, emotional trauma, stigma. Safe housing is one thing that can provide the stability many of them desperately need to cope.

But housing has been one of the most difficult necessities for the mentally ill to acquire since the 1960s, when there was a movement, sparked in California, to shutter mental institutions nationwide. The idea was to provide community-based housing for the mentally ill.

But those good intentions ran into the buzzsaw of funding cutbacks in California and nationally. Instead of safe and secure community housing, many mentally ill people found themselves on the streets. Many others ended up in jails and prisons. Today, an estimated 25 percent of the 672,000* homeless in this country are mentally ill, and another 250,000 mentally ill people are incarcerated — nearly 10 percent of the entire jail and prison population in the country.

Housing options for the mentally ill are varied but limited. Public housing is typically federally funded and involves either Section 8 or Section 9 money. Section 8 is a tenant-based rental assistance program that provides vouchers for those who qualify based on income level and/or disability. Section 9 provides incentives for landlords to offer housing for people with disabilities by tying the subsidy to the rental building. Demand for this assistance far outstrips available housing units nationwide.

Other types of housing may be provided by state and local organizations, including nonprofit charitable groups like the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara. They include private residences, commercial board and care homes, supported independent living, group homes, community rehabilitation centers, structured residential programs and 24-hour care and nursing facilities.

Studies show that providing adequate housing for the mentally ill is more cost-effective in the long run, given the high costs of hospitalization, incarceration and emergency treatment for those without housing. But there is little coordination among agencies that provide housing services nationally, and because of the difficulty in navigating all the policies, many mentally ill people simply fall through the cracks.

There is also a widespread not-in-my-backyard factor that prevents organizations from building needed housing in neighborhoods where the mentally ill would receive greater support and a keener sense of living a “normal” life. Because the Santa Barbara project was built downtown and on property that was in part purchased from the city, NIMBY-ism didn’t raise its head.

Thus, the Garden Street Center addresses only a tiny fraction of the need. But it’s a start.

“When we contemplated taking on a project of this size, we did a fair amount of research,” Cameron explained. “We looked at a lot of other projects across the country, and the integrated nature of it was a topic of much discussion at the (association) board level. There was not complete agreement on the mix of work force housing and homes for the mentally ill. Some felt the need was so critical for the mentally ill that all the apartments should have gone to them. But the clients didn’t want to be ghettoized.”

Initially, half the apartments were reserved for the mentally ill and half for work force housing, Cameron said. But one of the funding agencies insisted that 75 percent of the apartments be reserved for the mentally ill.

“The clients really do not want to be stigmatized. Ideally, clients just want to live in housing,” Cameron said. “We’re not the first to do it, but it will provide so many wonderful things: onsite services, integrated populations. They can stay forever; it’s permanent housing.”

As the first residents prepared to move in this week, Cameron was delighted — and philosophical.

“We built some housing 10 years ago, a much smaller project, and I can tell you that the residents who moved in there, their lives have been improved so much.”

Having a safe place to call home can be transforming. You get past the stress of survival mode and get on with your life, she said.

“I honestly believe we’ve become calloused with our attitudes toward the homeless and mentally ill — we don’t recognize the stress involved in homelessness. My only regret is that there are only 51 units.”

* An earlier version of this story cited an out-of-date figure of 500,000.Return to story.

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