Rome, GA – It took two years for Tereasa Lowry to lock down a new apartment in Rome after she lost her house in 2009 during the recession. She’s battled severe bouts of depression since before grade school, and without her family’s support while she sought public housing, Lowry is certain she would have wound up homeless.
Lowry, a lifelong Rome resident, is among thousands of people in Georgia diagnosed with chronic physical or mental disabilities who struggle to maintain stable housing. Their paths become even tougher if they land in jail or the hospital, after which mental health advocates say state-funded services continue to fall short in helping them stay on their feet once they’re released.
“If you leave the hospital and you don’t have anywhere to go, what are you supposed to do?” Lowry, 45, said in Rome last week. “Thank God I had my family.”
Mental health services in Georgia have been under federal oversight since 2010, after the U.S. Department of Justice settled a lawsuit against the state for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal suit followed reports of patient deaths and protracted hospital stays for people with developmental and mental disabilities. The state’s crisis-intervention and transitional housing efforts are insufficient despite reforms that have cut down the number of hospital admissions, according to a new report from a federal monitor. That report estimated the state likely has enough funding to help house up to 1,200 more people than it currently does.
Officials with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities say the agency has overhauled mental health services in the state and pumped more than $270 million into them since 2010. But money is still short to boost core services like in-home support and specialist visits. That support could help people with mental disabilities stave off crisis episodes that require hospitalization and put housing arrangements at risk, according to state-funded regional care providers.
‘They have issues that they needed care for’
The situation is particularly visible about 45 miles northwest of Atlanta in Rome, a city of 36,000. City officials are considering a measure to tamp down on camping and panhandling among the city’s more than 200 homeless people. Some observers in Rome say homelessness worsened following the 2011 closing of the state-run Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital, which offered in-patient developmental disability and mental illness treatment, which followed the state’s federal lawsuit settlement.
“Those people going there weren’t going because it was the fun place to be,” said Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis. “They have issues that they needed care for, and folks didn’t necessarily have a home to go back to when it closed.”
Others say closing the hospital only amplified the existing shortage of transitional housing and support services for people discharged from hospitals and jail. Often, people in Rome who have chronic mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder wind up in cheap hotels after leaving the hospital or a stay in jail. Some rent poor-quality public housing that eats a large chunk out of their disability checks, said Bonnie Moore, a program manager for the Rome chapter of the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness. Without closer contact from local outreach professionals, mental illnesses impair much of the homeless population’s ability to follow medical rules and attend therapy sessions that help them stay off the streets.
“There are so many transitional points and so many handoffs,” Moore said. “But there are not enough bridges.”
The number of people with mental illnesses admitted into federal- and state-funded housing programs overseen by Rome’s local community service board, Highland Rivers Health, increased from 11 people in 2013 to 260 people this past year, according to the board’s CEO, Melanie Dallas. The board oversees 12 counties in northwest Georgia. It recently opened a transitional housing facility in Cedartown and plans to open one in Rome later this year.
Highland Rivers shifted its focus to strengthening in-home care and direct intervention services that aim to keep people with mental illnesses out of the hospital, Dallas said. But doing so is an uphill battle. Dallas says the board now has enough funding to provide around 13,000 people with those core, in-home services, while there are another roughly 21,000 they can’t yet reach.
“We’re trying to flip the pyramid,” Dallas said. “That takes time, it takes energy, and it actually takes quite a bit of money because you can’t stop doing what you’re doing here while you’re building something there.”
‘The grey area’
The nonprofit Elevation House and other local groups are working to expand the reach of the safety net. Don Scuvotti opened Elevation House in Rome earlier this summer. His son has schizoaffective disorder and faced years of cycling from hospitals to tenuous housing and back to hospitals, a family challenge that raised the older Scuvotti’s awareness of the need for more support. Elevation House is the first facility in Georgia to adopt the national clubhouse model that provides hands-on work opportunities and skills training for mentally ill people in an intimate communal setting.
“A very low percentage of options are truly constructive for people with mental illnesses,” Scuvotti said at Elevation House last week. “That’s the grey area. There’s a missing continuity of care.”
On a Friday afternoon last week, Lowry and her friend Glenda Dixon, 51, relaxed in a common room at Elevation House’s building off Washington Street, which once housed the city’s first school for African Americans prior to desegregation. The facility is now an essential gathering space particularly for Dixon, who endured stretches of homelessness when her past criminal convictions reduced her ability to secure housing options. Those convictions piled up as Dixon said she became a “test bunny” for medications to treat bipolar disorder, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder she traced to physical and sexual abuse faced as a child. Dixon said Elevation House marks a safe haven while she lives with family and searches for housing.
“I’ve been out there in a world where I’ve eaten out of garbage cans and slept in abandoned houses,” Dixon said. “When you come from the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ so to speak, it keeps you from getting housing and sometimes you just give up.”