Why is no one talking about this housing crisis?

What would drive two moms to go on a 3,170-mile journey looking for the housing options available to the most vulnerable people in California — those with a serious mental illness? The answer is that for decades, we and thousands of families have been trying to build housing that will save our loved ones from living on the streets, jails, and grim care homes with untrained staff.

From “Housing That Heals” A Search for a Place Like Home for Families Like Ours”

This is on my wish list for Hollywood:  can we pilot a congregate living, family style home or apartment building where people struggling with a serious mental illness,  who have been repeatedly left to fall through the cracks of our system,  can live for the rest of their lives?   What comes to mind is the lyrics of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song:  “Our house, is a very, very, very fine house.  With two cats in the yard.  Life used to be so hard.” 

You could come here if you’ve been revolving through L.A. County jail.  You could come here if you hate the boredom of your board and care home.  You can come straight from the bus bench you’ve been living on for the past year.  I imagine 24/7 care, the smells constantly coming from the oven, and everyone has an assignment to help make a meal, go shopping, take out the trash or do the dishes.  And, there is a garden and did I mention the two cats?  How can we do this? (And, p.s., those are my two cats illustrating this blog.)

Can we add congregate housing to the housing continuum?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the housing options we make available for people leaving homelessness.  In Los Angeles, I am aware of people, formerly homeless, who live in one of three options:  permanent supportive housing with a rent subsidy, scattered site housing (living independently) with a rent subsidy, and privately run board and care homes (ranging in size from 5 to over 100 beds) where the rent is paid through one’s social security disability check.

What appears to be missing from this discussion of a housing continuum is an offering of supportive communal or congregate (family-style)  living.  Granted, some options do exist that are offered by nonprofit organizations.  For example, last fall I toured a single family home where five women were sharing the rent, all arranged by SHARE, under their Collaborative Housing model, which seems like a fantastic idea and keeps rent costs down for the residents.  Though I was excited to see SHARE, this model is not optimal for some people (a relatively small cohort) of people with serious mental illness.  In these instances, people need more assistance with daily activities, food preparation, maintaining a medication regiment, assistance with laundry and the like.

Board and care homes are not family style

What we offer, instead, for people who benefit from help with daily activities  is a board and care home (sometimes referred to as an Adult Residential Facility).   In a board and care home, you live in a room with a roommate with no separation between your beds.  Most likely, since you are paying the bulk of your social security check to the facility (which is NOT enough for them to run this facility at $35/day per person) you are left with $120-ish for the month to pay for:  clothing, snacks, cigarettes, entertainment, transportation,  personal care items like eye glasses or make-up or haircuts. 

Because neither the resident nor the owner of the facility has any discretionary funds, there is nothing for the residents to do.  If you don’t believe me, come with me to visit two people I regularly check in on at two B/C’s in LA County.  You will see people sitting in the courtyard or in the dining room waiting for something to happen.   And, the situation has only become more dire in the wake of a pandemic.

That said, I am increasingly drawn to the notion of supportive family-style communal living for three reasons:  (1)  A sense of community mitigates against loneliness and isolation.  (2) Living with others allows for the opportunity to share expenses on a limited budget.  (3)  In a family-style arrangement, there is an opportunity to pursue purposeful work through chores and helping out. 

New Podcast Explores Innovative Housing Options in Opening Episodes

I’ve been busy this summer preparing for an inaugural season of a podcast called Heart Forward:  Conversations from the Heart.  That will explain why this blog fell dormant during the month of September.

I’ve learned a ton – and I am ready to rock ‘n roll.  My collaborating partnership is with Peer Mental Health, and I would not be where I am right now without their technical and moral support!   There are 10 episodes planned for the first season, which will stretch to mid December, then we’ll take a little break and re-convene in the new year.

The first two episodes are devoted to exactly this issue:  what options exist for adults struggling with severe mental illness in our state?  Without hesitation, I knew I wanted to launch by  giving a broad platform to two resilient and committed women – Lauren Rettagliata and Teresa Pasquini – who self published a report this past May called Housing That Heals:  A Search for a Place Like Home for Families Like Ours.  Their report is replete with excellent research into how our mental health system fails the most vulnerable who need permanent, safe and hospitable housing.  They also take us along on their 2019 road tour of 20 different facilities or communities in the state and offer up inspiration into how some of these exemplary options could be replicated in other parts of the state.

Common area on the campus at Psynergy in Morgan Hill. Not your average Adult Residential Facility

The first two episodes are dedicated to their story.  Episode 1 takes us into the back-story of their families, and their journeys as parents advocating every which way to Sunday for their adult sons.  Episode 2 affords us the opportunity to visit five of the locations that they consider to be most inspiring:  California Psychiatric Transitions, Psynergy, the John Henry Foundation, the Garden Court Apartments, a program of Hope Solutions, and Everwell Integrated Health.

Photo of Teresa and Lauren on their 2019 road trip. They clearly were having fun, but their report is serious business.

They make the case in their report that what their sons need is something much more intensive and robust than the traditional “housing first” model which has become a national standard for moving people from homelessness.  Hence their coining of the phrase, “housing that heals.” 

Please take a moment to listen to these two interviews, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.  Over the course of the next two months, I will be exploring many important topics including:

  • The clubhouse model (and can we have a clubhouse in Hollywood?)
  • How two inmates have lived 24/7 embedded in LA County Twin Towers and what they do each day in their role as “mental health assistants” working with seriously mentally ill inmates
  • Exploring new books about radical hospitality, a mother’s journey through the mental health system, and the criminalization of mental illness in America
  • How Trieste inspired the proposed mental health pilot project in Hollywood along with an interview with two psychiatrists who came to the US to tour the LA County system and how it compares to Trieste.

Plan a walk in your neighborhood.  Put on your  headphones.  Listen to Heart Forward!  And don’t forget your mask!

Prepped to take a walk and listen to the podcast

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