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Portland Agency Assists Mentally Ill With Housing
12/31/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Maine's system for treating people with severe mental illness is hampered by two bottlenecks. One for those trying to get in, and one for those on the way out, back into the community. The process of getting out of the hospital setting relies heavily on the availability of what's called "supported housing," in either apartments or group homes. Observers say there just aren't enough spots to the fill the need. One non-profit agency in Portland, Shalom House, is helping people with serious mental illnesses find independence and stability.

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Interior View of a Group Home in Portland

Interior View of a Group Home in Portland

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A block away from Portland's busy downtown a 24-year-old woman named Lindsey sits at the foot of her bed, in a space that serves as both bedroom and living room.

"I like how this apartment is really open, and I like the bay windows especially. Especially during the summer," Lindsey said. "That gets a lot of light."

Lindsey, who has asked that we not use her last name, lives alone, but has access to support staff that monitor her medication and help with other needs for 12 hours per day. She suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which she said makes her emotional and hallucinate. During the past few years, she has gone from depending on crisis units and hospitals to finding a place at a group home and is now settled in this supported apartment.

"I've learned living skills, like I've learned how to cook better," she said. "And I've learned more social skills. Because before this I was in high school, I wasn't very social, and it's just helped me blossom into a more mature person."

This apartment is operated by the non-profit agency Shalom House, which owns 25 residential properties in southern Maine. In all, these properties provide housing for 220 people with severe mental illness.

"We're not just housing, and we're not just mental health," said Shalom House Executive Director Mary Haynes-Rodgers. "We're very unique in that we do those two things together."

She said that compared to other states, Maine offers a lot of support for people with mental illness. But the system, she said, is disjointed, and many of those providers who work at the ground level, such as the staff of Shalom House, are often frustrated in the effort to provide what she describes as the "best continuum of care."

"And how you ensure the money is being spent the best it can be and that clients are getting the right level of care," said Haynes-Rodgers. "I think there's been a break down in the system. There's not a lot of communication."

All the residents pay some sort of rent, but the housing is funded mostly through MaineCare and state grants. Rates range from about $100 to $250 per day, compared to a $1,000 per day at a state hospital, where some individuals wait for months for an open spot in supported housing. At Shalom House alone, there's a wait list of about a 100 people at any given time. State funding is being directed to supported apartments, which offer more independence. And while there is certainly a need for that type of housing, Clinical Director Ed Blanchard said there's a shortage of services for some clients who really need them.

"There's a number of people who at times in their life need more than that, and if they don't get it, they'll end up in the hospital, in the emergency rooms, and perhaps back at the state hospital," Blanchard said.

In the city's east end in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, is the Seth Jordan House. It’s home to six residents, including Steven Dow.

"Almost a year now, I believe," Dow said. "Around a year. And I'm going bowling today."

The house looks and feels like any nice home, with a living room just inside the door and a bright, wooden-floored dining room where staff and residents share home-cooked dinners. Staff are on site 24 hours per day, and have helped Dow, who has schizoaffective disorder, learn essential household chores.

"I've learned how to do laundry, and dishes, and stuff like that," Dow said. "I've learned how to do those."

MH - Ed BlanchardDow said he likes that he can also be independent and walk to the ocean, just minutes away. Clinical Director Ed Blanchard said group homes like this are a somewhat invisible but vital, part of communities.

"Very often we've come into neighborhood in a building that has been run down, or even abandoned," Blanchard said. "We've rehabbed it, made it a nice building, occupied it, and become good neighbors."

Neighbors, said Blanchard, who learn to be part of the larger community as a whole.


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