Not just shelter, but a lifeline for those with mental illness

Jamie Cook has been living in a 'supported housing' apartment in Gainesville for the past seven months.
Jamie Cook has been living in ‘supported housing’ in Gainesville for the past seven months.

Jamie Cook has come a long way in the past two years.

For much of her life, she suffered from drug addiction and from bipolar disorder, along with depression and anxiety.

She endured periods of homelessness. She generally acted ‘‘full of bitterness and rage,’’ alienating her family. She lost custody of her two children. And she frequently attempted suicide and had to be hospitalized.

But Cook, 43, has now been sober for more than two years, and for the past seven months has lived in an apartment in Gainesville. Her rent is being paid by the state of Georgia, and she has received help with medication for her mental illness and with living skills.

Cook actually feels well enough now to help other troubled people. She’s a volunteer at an alcohol/drug rehab program.

“My life has been turned around,’’ she says. “I’m just a completely different person.’’

Her apartment comes as a result of a housing initiative agreed to by the state of Georgia in a 2010 settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.

According to that five-year pact, 2,000 individuals with serious and persistent mental illness will be placed in state-funded ‘‘supported housing’’ by 2015, as part of a broader commitment to establish community services for about 9,000 Georgians with mental illness.

Such housing programs are designed for people with disabilities, mental illness or addictive disease. They feature ‘‘supports’’ such as counseling and offer help with everyday needs, including medication and transportation. They also help teach basic skills such as cooking, keeping a checkbook or applying for a job.

Such arrangements can stabilize people who are homeless or at risk of institutionalization, experts say.

A landmark agreement

The housing component is a linchpin of the DOJ settlement. The agreement also has moved people with development disabilities out of state hospitals to community settings through ‘‘waiver’’ programs.

Supported housing can take many forms, from group homes to rental apartments, and can be funded by various sources, from federal and state government to nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

The deal Georgia made with the feds is unprecedented, and what the state does to fulfill its housing pledge will be a focus of national attention. “How it happens in Georgia will be watched very carefully,’’ says Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.

“This is the right thing to do,’’ Decker says. “We’re just really hopeful that Georgia will be a model.’’

But Decker admits he’s uneasy because of the state’s generally weak track record on caring for people in need.

“I’m a little concerned about a state that doesn’t have a lot of experience in this area,’’ he says. “I’m nervous about the state’s ability to ramp up.’’

Decker says that there must be strong monitoring of the housing arrangements at the local level. “There will probably be some bad actors [looking] to make some quick bucks,’’ he says.

Other supported housing programs, though, have established a solid reputation in the state.

In Brunswick, a housing complex serves women battling addiction, along with their children. In the Atlanta area, Project Interconnections operates permanent residences for formerly homeless adults struggling with mental illness.

As a result of the Justice accord, more than 250 people with ‘‘serious and persistent’’ mental illness have been placed in supported apartments across the state, says Doug Scott, supported housing director for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The state’s target is to double that number by July 1. It’s spending $2.5 million on the housing alone, Scott says.

Successes, failures, challenges

The program is working well, Scott says. The state is using 130 different properties, in settings that are integrated into the community. “We’re in very rural areas and in urban areas.’’

But the record isn’t perfect. “Some individuals have gotten into housing but have violated their lease’’ and are now living in a more restrictive setting, or are in jail, Scott says. About 7 percent leave the program, he says.

Talley Wells, director of the Mental Health and Disability Rights Project for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, says he’s concerned about the ability of the state to serve 9,000 people with housing help, as outlined in the DOJ pact.

“There’s an extraordinary amount of need for this housing,’’ Wells says. This year, he adds, “is the critical year for the Department of Justice settlement.’’

Cook, who is part of the housing voucher program, has had her apartment partly furnished with the help of special state funding.

She was placed there by Avita Community Partners, a service agency in the region that found residences for seven other people last year.

Avita residential supervisor Janice Modisett says the people are assigned a community support person, and are linked with a counselor and psychiatrist. “You have to follow through with your treatment,’’ Modisett notes.

Cook has done that. She is now able to see her children again. They’re no longer worried about her, she says.

“I had to change my heart,’’ she says about her recovery. “I thank God for that heart change.’’

‘‘This has been the most peaceful year of my life.’’