Supervised Housing gives "disabled" homeless a haven & help?

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 29 May 1999 15:53:36 -0700 (PDT)


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Does the facility cited below seem like a place where _you_ would want to
live?  Why or why not?

Would you move there if able from where _you_ stay now?  Why or why not?

http://208.19.97.15/top/i--1284539268.asp
FWD  Bakersfield Californian - May 25, 1999

HOUSING COMPLEX GIVES THE DISABLED HOMELESS A HAVEN AND HELPING HAND

By OLIVIA GARCIA - Californian staff writer

[photo] John Norberg looks out at his new home at Green Gardens, a new
south Bakersfield development. - Sarah Reingewirtz / The Californian

John Norberg and his neighbors have waited for something like this.

For too long, Norberg said, he and other people who are homeless and
mentally ill have only had the streets, where hustlers preyed on them and
mainstream society stigmatized them.

No more, the 35-year-old said.

Norberg has a home now. He lives at Green Gardens, a new south Bakersfield
housing development envisioned to offer the disabled homeless a safer place
to live, mental health and substance abuse treatments, medical attention,
mentoring and basic social skills -- all under one roof.

Green Gardens is one of about 10 or 20 projects  across the country for
people who are both disabled and homeless, county mental health officials
said.

Each client will live independently in their own studio apartment. A
residential manager will be appointed.

Mental health, medical and public housing experts are among the officials
who will staff the site at different times to offer programs to prepare the
disabled homeless for an eventual return to mainstream society.

Green Gardens is not completely ready. Painting, turning dirt into grass,
studio repairs and troubleshooting continue.

One by one, social service officials have begun moving into their assigned
offices at the front entrance.

So far, about 10 people, mostly mentally ill homeless, have moved in. By
July, 90 people are expected to be living there.

Not everyone qualifies.

Those who do must be homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless and meet one
of the following criteria: Be mentally ill, AIDS/HIV infected, physically
disabled or dually diagnosed with a mental illness and a past history of
substance abuse.

Each of them must be ready to change their life, a critical point
determined during the screening process.

Residents can move in and out and around the place freely. But no alcohol
or drugs, except prescribed medications, are allowed.

Norberg said he plans to watch out for that and turn anyone in who disobeys
the rule.

"Alcohol puts me at risk," said Norberg, who is diagnosed with bipolar
disorder, which brings on abrupt mood swings.

He recently completed an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program.
Previously, he had used alcohol to self-medicate his disorder, which at
first he denied having. His alcoholism resulted in a divorce from his wife
of six years, loss of his construction job and homelessness until recently.

"I'm trying to stay here and get well," he said. "When you get to spend
time with homeless people in homeless shelters, you sleep with them, you
eat with them, you shower with them, you realize, they're just regular
people. They're not ax murderers."

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people are homeless in Kern County, said Gene
Saint-Amand, housing coordinator for the county's Mental Health Department.
About one-third are likely to have a severe mental problem.

"When they're homeless, their problem is generally aggravated and
untreated. You have to really reach out for them," said Saint-Amand, noting
the facility can make significant differences. "This is not a
rehabilitation facility and it's not a treatment facility. It's independent
living in a community with supportive services."

Nearby residents don't know what to make of it.

Mike and Kathelene McMains and 2-year-old daughter Hannah live directly
across from the housing facility.

Both support the project, as long as it's run by experts and it will
improve residents' lives.

"If it's fenced, lit up and staffed by qualified individuals, I'm for it
because they need help like everyone else," said Mike McMains, a
construction worker. "It has to be a controlled environment. I mean, I
don't want to have to put iron bars on my house. I want to live my life and
I don't want to risk my daughter's safety."

Kathelene McMains, who is studying to become a teacher, said the project is
a better answer than leaving them on the streets.

"But that's if they're being helped," she said. "I want to know the
statistics or success ratios for something like this."

Another nearby resident, Graciela Lopez, doesn't care about what numbers
tell her.

She wants the project out of her neighborhood. She worries that it places
her children and grandchildren's safety at risk.

"I thought it was going to be a hotel, and I was upset about that," she
said. "Can you imagine how I feel now? I don't support this. It's too close
to my family. If people in their right mind commit crimes, what about
people who aren't in their right minds?"

Other neighbors say they don't want to rush to judgment. They prefer to
take a wait-and-see approach.

Developer Jim Childress said he sought the support of neighborhood
residents before beginning the project.

Though the project is being funded by a federal grant, he has spent money
out of his own pocket to pay for construction and equipment.

The grant subsidizes rent and electricity and must be matched by agencies
committed to provide social services.

The Housing Authority of Kern County will set up shop at the site,
enrolling residents in housing assistance programs.

Clinica Sierra Vista provides a nurse, medical assistance and a doctor who
volunteers certain days at the site.

Clinica takes up the first few units with a medical office and patient
rooms for homeless people recovering from illnesses or injuries that have
landed them in emergency rooms.

The Kern County Mental Health Department will staff the facility with four
case managers and a licensed masters-level clinician.

Services such as psychiatric consultations, medication management, mental
health counseling and substance abuse prevention and treatment will be
offered.

Bethany Services will offer case management to selected residents while the
Kern County Mental Health Association will provide transportation to
eligible participants.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups will be scheduled at
the facility to support mentally ill residents who are recovering addicts
and alcoholics.

Other community groups have offered to teach money management and other
classes.

Childress became interested a few years ago after learning his 26-year-old
niece had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He also learned that mentally ill people are known to be non-violent. More
often, they'll hurt themselves or become victims of others.

But like his niece, these people can lead productive lives with treatment
and help from family and social service agencies, he said.

"This is not a motel," he said. "This is a facility designed to help them
and make them feel safe."

He plans to build a greenhouse so residents can work at the site and is
working with the Tree Foundation to plant trees for the nonprofit group.

The facility has been years in the making.

"It's not just housing, but this is a supported housing program -- whether
it's counseling or help with getting job referrals," said Bill Carter,
director of the Housing Authority of Kern County.

"The project will not only fill a critical need, it's turning blighted
property into an attractive complex."

Norberg is just happy it's finally happened.

He says he is still not ready to return to "normal day-to-day life" because
of his disorder.

But he hopes it will be only a matter of time now that he's been in
treatment and faced what he has.

The project has restored in him a sense of stability.

"This hasn't changed my life; it's saved my life," Norberg said.

"This is more permanent, and I swear to you this is going to work out great."

END FORWARD

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