It was the mid-1980s. Community-based services and facilities for people with mental illnesses were almost non-existent in Delaware. The newly formed Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Delaware successfully advocated with the state legislature for funds to develop two supervised group homes and some case management services. A year later, the homes were still in limbo. The state did not want to own them, and because of tax law changes in 1986, private investors had no interest. It was then that NAMI Delaware decided to get into the housing business.
We had no money and no housing experience, but by working with the state mental health agency and the state housing authority, we obtained a zero-percent interest loan to purchase and renovate one home and to build a seven-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath second home. We leased the homes to service providers who were under contract with the state to manage the programs. The lease income provided funds to meet the debt service and fund a replacement reserve account.
NAMI Delaware's next housing project was inspired by the late Bill Uhlhorn from Oregon, a member of NAMI's national board of directors. He introduced us to the HUD Section 202 Housing Program. On our own, we would never stand a chance of getting a project approved by HUD, so we recruited a local nonprofit organization that had HUD experience as our partner. This project was a great learning experi ence for us, as it enabled us to develop contacts with the HUD regional office and encouraged us to continue to develop HUD housing on our own. We then constructed a sixteen-unit apartment building that is located on a bus route, within walking distance of the University of Delaware, and overlooks a country club golf course.
Next, we decided to form a subsidiary nonprofit housing corporation so that our housing activities would not overshadow our mission of support, education, and advocacy. The state mental health agency obtained an NIMH grant and contracted with us to fund two housing staff positions for three years. Our plan to generate enough income to sustain these positions within three years fell short of the mark, but we obtained a foundation grant that provided two additional years of coverage. At the end of that time, our housing venture became financially self-sufficient.
During this period, the NAMI national office provided the opportunity for one of our volunteers to attend a seminar on the HUD 202 application process. With this know-how, we began to develop HUD housing on our own. Since then, we have had a total of eleven HUD 202 and/or Section 811 grants approved. In addition, we have developed two HUD McKinney permanent housing properties for homeless persons who are mentally ill, and we have acquired four more properties for use as supervised group homes.
Currently, we have fifty-four properties located throughout the state that provide permanent housing for 227 persons. In addition, HUD has recently approved another project for three homes, with capacity for ten more residents. In comparison, Delaware's only state hospital currently holds 250 patients.
All the HUD projects provide individual bedrooms for each resident and a project-based rent subsidy. Each resident pays only 30 percent of his or her adjusted gross income for rent and utilities. NAMI Delaware manages the properties and receives a management fee. The total property value of all our properties is about $15 million dollars.
The NAMI Delaware staff associated with development and operations management includes a development director, an operations manager, two property managers, one maintenance technician, and a part-time accounting manager. In addition, about fifteen volunteers conduct semi-annual inspections of the properties and pick-up and deliver donated furniture to furnish the HUD properties. Also, as a United Way agency, we participate in the United Way's "Days of Caring" project in which employees of local corporations volunteer to do jobs such as landscaping and painting. These volunteers help us maintain the condition of all our properties at or above neighborhood standards.
In order to make this system work, we have had to develop several key relationships. The state mental health agency screens all housing applicants to verify that they have a mental disability and to judge their ability to live in the community. This agency is also responsible for providing the supportive case management that is needed. In most cases, the Delaware state housing authority provides a zero-interestbridge loan that permits us to acquire the property shortly after our HUD application is approved. This is important, because it could be a year or more before we receive any funds from HUD. Grants from foundations and corporations have also been an important source of funding of predevelopment costs and the cost of the furnishings we provide for the HUD homes.
Have we run into any opposition in planning group homes? Unfortunately, "NIMBY" ("not in my backyard") reactions from neighbors are frequently encountered. To address this, we join representatives from the state mental health agency to meet with neighbors and legislators to talk about our and our plans for the property in their neighborhood. In our experience, the opposition and concerns exist from the time we identify a property until shortly after move in. This could take as long as one or two years. We usually find that once people move in, the neighbors' fears stop and things settle down.
On one occasion, we had to resort to filing a complaint with our state human relations commission to force a homeowners association to approve our plans for a new home in their development. On another occasion, we engaged an attorney with federal fair housing law expertise to negotiate reasonable accommodations with a county to permit a supervised group home to be located in a residential area. changes in the state zoning statute to permit supervised group homes in residential areas regardless of what disability the residents may have.
Over the years, NAMI Delaware has received several recognition awards for our housing program. Delaware was the first recipient of NAMI's Sarah C. Francoeur Services Award in 1991, in honor of our housing work. Most recently, we received the Eli Lilly Community Integration Award (1999) and the Philadelphia Eagles Community Services Volunteer Award (2002).
We hope for continued success in our efforts to develop and maintain successful community-based housing.
As I once again gazed upon the formidable, almost timeless building located on the perimeter of the hospital complex, I found myself filled with the contradictory emotions of elation and dread. On the one hand, I was elated because I no longer was an occasional occupant of this homeless shelter. On the other hand, I felt dread because the memories of living there were so devastating. But I was glad that I'd returned to this place, the 30th Street Bellevue Men's shelter, for the October 2, 2002 march and rally for New York/ New York III Housing.
I, along with numerous other consumers of mental health services, and various mental health provider agencies, joined together at this site to peacefully and publicly demand that our elected officials recognize not only our plea but also the plight of so many of our peers by providing 9,000 new units of housing for the homeless mentally ill.
Looking back upon the twisted journey of my life, I am aware of how my history of homelessness was probably one of the main reasons that I'd languished so long outside main stream society. I remember being shuttled from facility to facility with little access to effective services. The daily uncertainty of matters such as where I was going to eat and sleep contributed to my deteriorating psychiatric condition. Unable to form healthy relationships or achieve healthy pursuits, many of us homeless at times feel a little less than human.
We gathered outside the Bellevue shelter and as we marched through Manhattan, I considered the people passing in their mobile cocoons of comfort and luxury, who gazed at us with expressions of curiosity, wonder, and sometimes sympathy. I wondered if these citizens could even imagine what it was like to have nowhere to call your own.
The only place I had to store my belongings was a flimsy 3' x 5' locker. I was told when and where to sleep, and I usually stood in a long, sometimes fragrant line for an insufficient meal of questionable quality.
Most of the real world has no knowledge of the subculture of homeless people. The violence and degradation of the overpopulated circles of hell were the labyrinthine shelters of the 80's. They are no longer as visible, but these conditions and experiences continue, although on a smaller and less obvious scale.
Recovery from mental illness is a difficult undertaking, especially since it requires people to act contrary to what may seem natural when they are sick. Being suspicious of people who are trying to help may seem natural to a sick person, but it is an obstacle to recovery, which requires honesty and trusting relationships.
If we, as a society, have the knowledge and means to remove homelessness as an obstacle to recovery, then we have a moral obligation to do so. If we stood tall in the face of 9/11, why can't we provide homes for our unfortunates during normally distressing times?
(New York City Voices Editor's note: Tyrone Garrett has stayed at over seven homeless shelters throughout New York City. He is the current program supervisor and senior peer advocate of Baltic Street Mental Health Board's Staten Island Peer Advocacy Center, an advocacy and empowerment program.)