Permanent housing offers stability for those with mental illness

Michele Lynch shows her favorite art piece she created through the Breakout H’Art program run by Interim Inc. Lynch, who has bipolar and ADHD, lives in an affordable housing project managed by Interim Inc. in Salinas. Photo: Melissa Flores/California Health Report

Michele Lynch doesn’t mince words about where she would be if she hadn’t connected with the services of Interim Inc. four years ago.

“I’d be dead,” she said.

Lynch, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD in 2008, was on the brink of becoming homeless when she checked into a hospital after an acute episode. The doctors connected her with McHome Homeless Services, a program run by nonprofit Interim Inc. that provides outreach to homeless adults with mental illness and supportive housing with intensive, integrated services.

“One lady talked to me like an angel who came down from the sky,” Lynch said. “She got me into the art room and started giving me self worth.”

On a recent morning, Lynch displayed many of her art pieces at a lunch fundraiser for Interim Inc. She talked about her favorite pieces, including one with overlapping rectangles. She said the painting reflects how she feels sometimes. Most of the pieces are abstract and she said one of them was painted when she had “no eyes.” She woke up one morning and couldn’t see due to glaucoma that has since been treated.

Breakthrough H’Art is one of the many programs offered by Interim to give clients an outlet to deal with their mental illness, while also giving the clients a way to earn money. When they sell a piece, the money goes straight to the clients, many who are living on disability payments.

Lynch started seeing a therapist, went to group meetings and started taking medication to treat her disorder. It was the first time she had a diagnosis and an opportunity to learn to deal with her illness. She said she always knew she was different, but didn’t have the words to describe it. She moved from McHome to a residential treatment center in 2009 and in June 2010 she graduated to an independent living facility. She was proud to announce that she had just moved into her own personal studio at Sunflower Gardens recently in Salinas.

Interim Inc. is nearly done with fundraiser for its latest affordable housing project, Rockrose Gardens in Marina. The agency recently received a $100,000 grant from Monterey Peninsula Foundation for the 20 units project. The cost is estimated at $5.8 million and construction is slated to being next year.

The 2011 Census for Monterey County found most adults with serious mental illness are very low-income and on public assistance. The average Social Security Income of a single disabled individuals in the Monterey-Salinas area is $850 a month while the fair market rent for a studio apartment is $868 a month.

Interim Inc. was founded in 1975, ahead of a statewide trend to deal with mental illness in community settings rather than in institutional settings that started with the passage of the California Mental Health Services Act in 2004.

A 2011 report from the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research, found 8.3 percent of adults in California reported having mental health needs. Based on numbers from the 2007 California Health Interview Survey, the report found people with mental health needs had a higher rate of other chronic illnesses than the general population. Those from “traditionally disadvantaged groups such as American Indians and Alaska Natives, mixed-race Californians and sexual minorities reported high levels of mental health needs.” The study also found single heads of households, with or without children, reported higher mental health needs. The study also found that less than a quarter of those indicating they had mental health needs received adequate treatment in the last year.

“The economic cost of untreated mental illness is estimated to be more than $100 billion a year in the United States,” said Barbara Mitchell, the executive director of Interim. “Interim’s goal is to help people with mental illness to achieve satisfying, productive lives in the community and avoid negative consequences such as hospitalization, jail and homelessness.”

The agency serves 1,700 people a year. It runs 17 housing and treatment facility projects, including the studio in which Lynch resides.

“Most people don’t realize how few tools our communities have to work with homeless adults,” Mitchell said. “Too often, they are hospitalized or jailed at significant cost to the community.”

The Mental Health Services Act approved by voters as Proposition 63 in 2004 provides more funding to county-based mental health programs. The funding from a 1 percent tax on personal income in excess of $1 million was expected to fund the implementation of treatment, prevention and early intervention programs for those with serious mental illness.

“However, there is growing concern that limited public resources, coupled with the difficulty in identifying these vulnerable subgroups, serve as obstacles to effectively providing services for those most in need,” the UCLA Mental Health report stated.

Still, the cost of not serving the needs remains high. An experiment in Los Angeles, started in 2008, concluded that giving homeless residents permanent housing with no strings attached provides a savings to taxpayers. Dubbed Project 50, the program identified 50 of the most needy residents on Skid Row near downtown Los Angeles and put them into housing. The housing had no conditions on the residents – they didn’t have to undergo substance abuse treatment, seek help for mental illness or take medications for chronic illnesses if they didn’t want to. A report from the Los Angeles County chief executive office, released in 2012, found the program saved $238,700 in costs even with a steep investment of $3.045 million over a two-year period.

The report found that while mental health and substance abuse treatment costs increased – as some of the residents opted to take advantage of the treatments offered – the cost of incarceration and medical services went down.

Kontrena McPheter, of Monterey County, found a way to succeed when she was given a permanent place to live. “Eight years ago I was blessed with having one of the workers find me and ask if I needed help,” McPheter said, of Interim Inc.

As with Lynch, she started out at McHome. “I had nothing,” she said. “Only the clothes I was wearing.” McPheter was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and depression.

She said the staff members took her in and took care of her basic needs while she regained some balance in her life. McPheter is now the coordinator of the Success Over Stigma program, which allows Interim clients to improve public speaking skills while sharing information about mental illness in the community. The group has talked at faith-based organizations, school groups and business associations.

“Eight years later, I’m standing before you and I’m proud because I have something to say,” she said. “I have an opinion, dreams, hopes and a goal.”

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