‘Tiny homes’ to house people with mental illness

By Todd Cohen

PITTSBORO, N.C. — Among the nearly 359,000 adults in North Carolina who live with serious mental illness, or nearly one in 20 adult North Carolinians, fewer than half receive treatment and only one in three receives services from the state’s public mental health system. North Carolinians diagnosed with mental illness also account for roughly one in four of the nearly 9,000 adults in the state who are homeless.

Providing a place to live, along with support services, for people with mental illness is the goal of a partnership that aims to begin building a small community of 200-square-foot “tiny homes” on a farm in Chatham County.

The homes represent “a potential solution to the life of chronic homelessness and isolation experienced by a majority of our clients,” says Rebecca Sorensen, a volunteer and former intern at The Farm at Penny Lane, a program of the Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Yet simply placing a person with mental illness in a home “solves only half the problem,” says Sorensen, who this spring received a master’s degree in social work from UNC. “You’re dealing with the homelessness but not the mental-health issue.”

The Tiny Home collaborative is the brainchild of Sorensen and Thava Mahadevan, who is director of operations at the Center, which is housed in the Department of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine, and who served as Sorensen’s clinical adviser during her graduate studies.

As one of five semifinalists competing last spring for a $25,000 grant from Triangle Community Foundation to support partnerships to address community problems, the Tiny Home collaborative received $7,000.

Mahadevan, who also is founder and volunteer executive director of XDS Inc., a nonprofit that owns The Farm at Penny Lane and leases it to the Center, says it used some of the grant to study local zoning rules, and the remainder as matching funds to help raise the roughly $30,000 needed to build the demonstration tiny home.

In partnership with Chatham County Habitat for Humanity, Tiny Homes plans at the Chatham County Fair in September to build a demonstration home for the Farm at Penny Lane.

The home will serve as a model dwelling for mentally-ill individuals who would stay for a week or two. Based on their feedback, the partnership would work with Habitat for Humanity of Chatham County to build an initial cluster of three tiny homes at The Farm for local residents with mental illness.

The 40-acre Farm includes an acre used to grow vegetables and produce honey and eggs that are donated to patients with mental illness at the Center’s outpatient clinic at Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro, and sold at the Fearrington Farmers Market and the Farmers Market at UNC Hospitals.

The Farm also houses offices for a multi-disciplinary “ACTT” team —  including a psychiatrist, nurses, substance-abuse counselor, case managers and others — that serves 110 people, mainly in Chatham and Orange counties, with serious disabilities and mental illness.

And it provides Center patients with horticulture therapy in partnership with the North Carolina Botanical Garden and, in partnership with paws4people foundation in Wilmington, with therapy that involves training dogs for adoption that are rescued from the Chatham County Animal Shelter, and socializing puppies trained to be service dogs for military veterans. It also plans to add therapeutic programs involving music, art and yoga.

The connections that link the Farm, XDS and the Center are rooted in the 2001 state law that required local mental health centers to spin off their services to for-profit or nonprofit providers.

Mahadevan formerly was director of Cross Disability Services, a program of the Orange-Person-Chatham Mental Health Center. In 2004, in response to the 2001 law, he formed XDS, which took over the program and later bought the Farm. In 2011, XDS transferred its clinical services to the UNC Center.

Sorensen says the tiny homes will mean “increased self-sufficiency and improved quality of life for people diagnosed with mental illness.”

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