‘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.”

Alamance partnership serves homeless

By Todd Cohen

BURLINGTON, N.C. — Individuals and families in Alamance County at risk of homelessness are getting affordable housing, rental assistance and support services, thanks to a partnership among Allied Churches of Alamance County, United Way of Alamance County, and DeBoer & Gabriel Properties in Burlington.

Allied Churches, which operates a 102-bed emergency shelter that provides stays of 30 days to 90 days for homeless men, women and children, also subsidizes rent for eligible homeless people through a federally funded “Rapid Re-Housing Program.”

That program aims to provide safe, stable housing and case management for clients after they leave the shelter, including case management and, for the first four months, a rent subsidy.

To expand that program, DeBoer & Gabriel Properties has agreed to keep monthly rent stable and not increase it for as long as Rapid ReHousing clients have a lease.

Allied Churches will provide federal funding for four months to cover the fair market rent for each client until they establish themselves as tenants. After that, the clients are responsible for those costs.

And United Way will provide up to $20,000 a year to help cover the gap between the federal Rapid ReHousing dollars and the monthly rent.

Forty-eight percent of renters in Alamance County were not able to afford the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom housing unit, according to 2013 data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“We recognize that there is not enough available affordable housing, particularly near the jobs where people are working,” says Heidi Norwick, United Way president. “Without a public transportation system currently in our community, that’s even more important.”

To provide people in need with an affordable way to get to work or school or to appointments for health and human services, United Way recently announced it would give $100,000 to support the new public bus system the City of Burlington expects to launch in the spring of 2016.

A key goal of the new housing partnership is to help people living in emergency housing get “started and settled,” Norwick says. “After that, they are the tenants, and they will also take classes on financial counseling and how to be a good tenant.”

Allied Churches will provide those classes, she says, and United Way will provide its rent subsidies “as long as the tenant remains in good standing.”

CASA turns to community to serve homeless

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Growing up in Duplin County in rural eastern North Carolina, Debra King learned about the “interdependency of people in a small farming community.”

For the past 19 years, King has tried to put that lesson to work as CEO of CASA, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that develops and manages over 300 units of affordable housing at 37 properties in Wake, Durham and Orange counties for people with disabilities or who are homeless, many of them veterans.

Formed in 1992 by the Wake County Area Mental Health Program, an agency that worked to ensure that indigent people received proper care for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities, CASA now operates with an annual budget of $3 million and staff of 26 people.

Its staff includes 10 part-time employees who are residents of its housing and serve as the landscaping crew for its properties.

The agency has a separate budget of roughly $2.5 million a year, mostly from public funding, to develop new housing.

This year, it is developing 10 single-bedroom units on Sunnybrook Road in Raleigh, where it already has 10 units.

It also has begun construction on 11 single-bedroom units at the intersection of Sedgefield and Guess roads near Northgate Mall in Durham in the first phase of a complex that will house homeless veterans and include indoor community space, a laundry room and outside sitting area.

The Durham complex will be named for Alexander B. Denson, a retired magistrate judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Denson, who in the 1990s served as the third chair of CASA’s board of directors, helped spearhead efforts to develop a shelter in downtown Raleigh that could house homeless people on cold nights.

The Denson Apartments for Veterans will cost $1.4 million, most of it public funding but also including $75,000 from the Home Depot Foundation because it will house veterans, and $46,500  from a foundation that wishes to remain anonymous and supports “green,” or environmentally-friendly buildings.

CASA also is seeking $27,000 in private donations to cover landscaping costs, as well as furniture and equipment for the community room.

Missy Hatley, former director of annual fund and communications at Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, joined CASA in January as its first full-time director of development, and has a goal of raising $85,000 in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

In November and December, CASA held its first fundraising appeal to individuals, and plans another in April.

With a waiting list of over 500 people, King says, CASA aims to engage individual donors in helping to make sure homeless people have a safe place they can call home.

“If we could replicate that in our more urban environments, that sense of community and responsibility for one another,” King says of the interdependence among people she saw as a child raised on a farm, “we’d solve so many of our issues.”

Cooperation key in fighting homelessness

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation. I am working with the Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

DURHAM, N.C. — Collaboration as a preferred strategy for making an impact on community problems is the focus of growing conversation in the charitable world, although turning that aspiration to cooperate into a working reality can be daunting.

To see a model for how to build a community-wide partnership that is supported by public and private investors and addresses an urgent local need, consider the effort to fight homelessness in Durham.

Housing for New Hope, the lead partner in that effort, was founded in 1992 to prevent and end homelessness in the community.

Public-private partnerships

Starting in 1992, when it received its first federal grant, a core strategy at Housing for New Hope has been to team with public and private partners and funders.

Reinforcing that strategy was $1 million in federal stimulus funding in 2010 that helped inspire the agency to form a partnership with Urban Ministries of Durham, Genesis Home, and the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network.

That partnership reflected a policy at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that has encouraged community cooperation to address homelessness.

With that funding, the partnership has served 173 households through its collaborative “rapid rehousing” program that aims to help households free themselves from poverty.

The program provides or connects homeless people to permanent housing, and to support services they can use to find the stability they need to keep that housing.

Local funding

Those federal dollars now are gone, however. So, to generate support to continue and improve the program, the four agencies together approached local foundations and government.

That collective fundraising effort yielded a total of $450,000 in investment from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation and Stewards Fund, both in Raleigh, and from the City of Durham.

With those funds, the collaboration plans to serve at least 80 households over the next year.

Terry Allebaugh, who has served as executive director of Housing for New Hope since it was founded and has spearheaded the collaborative effort to fight homelessness, says private-public investment opens the door to greater flexibility than federal funding allows.

Innovative strategies

The Durham collaboration has sprouted a range of innovative strategies to help homeless people find their way to financial stability.

Each of the 80 households, for example, will get 50 pounds of food to get started, courtesy of the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina and the InterFaith Food Shuttle, both based in Raleigh.

Each household will receive a houseful of furnishings for only $288, thanks to The Green Chair Project in Raleigh, as well as a housewarming basket stocked with cleaning supplies and other household items by a group of Durham congregations and civic groups.

The households also will receive training and services to prepare them for the world of work and help place them in jobs through Durham Technical Community College and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development for the City of Durham.

That work-readiness and training program will include classes hosted at Urban Ministries for its clients and those of Genesis Home and Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Some families in the rapid rehousing program will be connected for a year to “Circle of Support” teams of five to seven volunteers recruited by Genesis Home who will provide a range of services, from tutoring and mentoring children and connecting families to employment opportunities and recreational activities to simply listening to family members.

And volunteers from congregations and businesses will be working to help move families into their new homes. Those volunteers, in turn, may want to suggest that their own congregations and businesses provide additional teams on an ongoing basis, widening the concentric circles of neighbors helping neighbors.

Local engagement

A big lesson from the Durham strategy to fight homelessness is that solving complex community problems is a job that increasingly will require creative solutions that engage public and private players, including services providers and investors.

With the serious problems our region faces, all of us should in the Triangle should be talking to one another and looking for ways to build those kinds of cooperative strategies, and to make them work.

Community solutions to homelessness urged

By Todd Cohen

[Note: I am working with Triangle Community Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — While homelessness can seem beyond any solution, efforts to reduce it are working.

Actually ending homelessness, however, will take truly collaborative community efforts that require patience and hard work, and are well designed, driven by incentives and shared goals, and tracked with useful metrics that show the impact of those efforts.

That was the message of four experts who work on homelessness issues and served on a panel at the April meeting of the Triangle Donors Forum.

Hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and United Way of the Greater Triangle at United Way’s offices in Morrisville, the Forum offered a window into local efforts to fight homelessness by adapting to changes in the funding environment and in perspectives about the causes of the problem and effective strategies to address it.

Roots of homelessness

Characterizing homelessness as “one of the most complex societal problems,” Denise Neunaber, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum the keys to ending the problem all are rooted in access — to affordable housing, to services and to income.

In the early 1980s, she said, homelessness was treated as an “emergency situation”  and a problem that eventually would “go away.”

Declines in the development of affordable housing and in wages, however, along with changes in the mental health system and other social forces, have resulted in the spread of homelessness, she said.

Yet the system created to fight homelessness, rooted in the belief it was a temporary crisis, has “taken on a life of its own,” she said.

Shifting strategies

The system that emerged to serve homeless people operated below the “safety net” to “catch people when the safety net doesn’t work,” Neunaber said.

But that system became a kind of “sticky net.”

“We created a system where you need to get services while you’re there,” she said, creating few exits for people in temporary housing who needed ongoing assistance.

But that system should be a “trampoline,” she said, to stabilize their housing while they get other support, including assistance with rent and in securing jobs or disability benefits, or services such as mental health programs or case management.

“People fall out of housing into our system and we try to bounce them back into housing and services,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, getting people out of homelessness requires permanent housing.

“Instead of investing just in services and a temporary place for individuals and families to stay,” she said, “we’re taking it to the next level, investing in housing, in rental assistance and security deposits, to see how quickly we can get people out of the system.”

Homelessness and poverty

Perceptions about what it means to be homeless also have changed, Neunaber said.

For many years, advocates equated fighting homelessness with fighting poverty, believing they had to address the poverty of homeless individuals and families by helping them “get better jobs and make better decisions, ” she said, “and make them better people.”

But over the years, advocates have recognized that “maybe ending homelessness is not the same as ending poverty,” she said. “Maybe ending homelessness is a piece of getting to the next step of ending poverty. We may not be able to end poverty for these individuals and families, but I know we can end  homelessness.”

Neunaber said local partnerships to end homelessness had helped reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals and families in communities across North Carolina, including a declines of 35 percent in Durham, 58 percent in Winston-Salem and and 82 percent in Buncombe County.

‘Rapid Rehousing’

Strategies for serving the homeless more recently have evolved to a “Housing First” model that includes a “Rapid Rehousing” approach focusing on first getting homeless people housed and then providing the services they need to get back on their feet and build stable lives.

“It shortens the time they’re homeless,” Terry Allebaugh, executive director of Housing for New Hope in Durham, told the Donors Forum.

Beth Bordeaux, executive director of PLM Families Together in Raleigh, told the Donors Forum that the Rapid Rehousing strategy also provides an incentive for families not to prolong their stays in emergency housing but rather to begin to prepare themselves to move into longer-term housing.

“First we get them stable,” she said. “If your life is in chaos, the first thing you want is to reduce your stress.”

Allebaugh and Bordeaux both said Rapid Rehousing has helped their agencies house more people for less money.

Last year, for example, PLM Families Together moved 57 families into permanent housing, and this year expects to move 70 families into permanent housing.

And in partnership with three core agencies that provide support services and temporary housing , Housing for New Hope housed 173 households in permanent housing over the two-and-a-half-year period ended August 2012, with 89 percent of those households remaining housed.

Community solutions

Advocates at the Donors Forum said the most effective approaches to fighting homelessness involve community-based partnerships that address the problem from the perspective of the systems that serve homeless people.

Those systems range from job-training and financial-literacy services to those serving people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, and people after they are discharged from military service or prison.

“You can’t end homelessness in a silo,” Bordeaux said.

Bernadette Pelissier, a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum that homelessness is a byproduct of national policies on a range of issues such as poverty and mental health, and that efforts to address homelessness are supported by multiple funding streams.

So partnerships to fight homelessness should approach the problem from a “systems” perspective.

In Orange County, she said, that approach has produced promising partnerships.

The local Partnership to End Homelessness, for example, has enlisted partners such as an assistant district attorney whose efforts helped establish a local “outreach court.”

That court, which has engaged students at the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with other partners, encouraged homeless people who have been arrested for misdemeanors to take advantage of local services, particularly mental health services.

And a local jobs program works to encourage local businesses to hire people released from prison who may be at risk of homelessness. That effort represents a collaboration between local partners such as the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce, and is administered by a new nonprofit led by students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We’re engaging the community,” Pelissier said, “not just providers” of services.

Critical to local collaborative programs, she said, is the ability to track and measure their impact.

Focus on collaboration

The session underscored the growing focus of Triangle Community Foundation and United Way to work more collaboratively to address urgent needs in the region.

“We have to do it together, think collaboratively,” Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation, told the Donors Forum. “We don’t have to be the experts. We look for resources and partners.”

Mack Koonce, president and CEO of United Way, told the Donors Forum that collaborative thinking “is important to all our social issues.”

United Way, he said, is “going to work closely with other foundations and individuals to work collaboratively on the donor side and on the service delivery side.”

He said United Way plans to raise “designated dollars to do the next systemic change” in the area of financial stability for families, an effort he said would “keep this going” through “collaboration, the use of data, and scaling what works.”

Habitat a ministry for real-estate veteran

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Six months ago, Frank Spencer was sitting at his desk, translating Hebrew Scripture, when he received a call, literally and figuratively.

A recruiter had phoned to ask Spencer, retired CEO of Cogdell Spencer, a publicly-traded health-care real-estate investment trust, about taking the top job at Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte.

Spencer, who had spent most of his career in the real-estate business and in May 2011 enrolled in the master of divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary, interpreted the phone call as a spiritual calling as well as a professional one.

“I view this really as a ministry, not simply as a housing enterprise,” says Spencer, who joined Habitat in May, succeeding long-time CEO Bert Green, who has taken on the newly created role of director of strategic initiatives.

Formed in 1983, Habitat Charlotte has served 1,149 families with affordable housing, including 936 new homes it has built, 101 homes it has refurbished, and 112 critical repair projects it has handled.

Habitat provides families with “decent, safe and affordable housing,” says Spencer, whose career has focused on finance, real estate and construction.

The agency also serves as a ministry to its 12,000 volunteers, as well as other agencies, the city of Charlotte, the community, and its employees, all part of a larger effort to stabilize housing, Spencer says.

Habitat buys foreclosed houses, rehabilitates them and sells them in an effort to help stabilize neighborhoods, and it provides critical home repairs for homes, mainly owned by elderly families in financial need.

Now, it aims to develop more partnerships and serve as a more public advocate for affordable housing.

It is part of a larger effort in Reid Park to define neighborhood goals, has teamed with the Green Building Council so every house it builds will be LEED certified, and is partnering with Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont to provide job training for Goodwill clients.

And as an advocate, it aims to be “part of a broader solution” by providing a “leadership voice” on affordable housing options, Spencer says.

Operating with annual budget of $14 million, Habitat is self-sufficient, he says, with a $2 million operating margin that is recycled into housing.

The agency also raises $3 million, all of it used to create new housing.

Still, Spencer says, “we have to find more financial resources.”

The strategic initiatives Green oversees include developing partnerships among the eight Habitat affiliates in the region that have saved nearly $100,000 through joint servicing of mortgages, shared purchasing builders risk and liability insurance, joint grant proposals, and shared purchasing of construction materials.

Spencer, who started his career working for John Crosland at The Crosland Group, now works in the John Crosland Center for Housing, named for his former boss, who was the founding chairman of Habitat Charlotte and remains a mentor to Spencer.

“I’ve now come full circle,”  he says. “I couldn’t have conceived of a better fit.”