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Led by mental health advocates, Tulsa targets end to chronic homelessness

January 17, 2013
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-In-Chief
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Mental Health Association’s 'no-debt' model leverages private funds, sparks success, ignites citywide effort
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In an effort spanning more than 20 years, concerned citizens and organizations in Tulsa, Oklahoma have combined careful planning, proactive leadership, and a generous element of public and private funding to build one of the nation’s leading housing and recovery programs. In doing so, Tulsans have struck powerful blows against the stigma associated with mental illness and disabilities, a stigma that can lead to discrimination in housing, services, and opportunities, according to Michael W. Brose, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, during the 28th Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.

A major component of achieving the Mental Health Association in Tulsa’s mission is its nationally recognized Housing Services program, which offers safe, affordable housing to 875 Tulsans, many of whom are battling mental illnesses and overcoming homelessness.

Approximately 50% of the Association’s current 650 units of housing are dedicated to homeless or formerly homeless adult individuals and families. Debt-free ownership, along with its mixed-income, mixed-population model, enables the Association to promote integration into the community, provide a sustainable operating budget and gives it the means to purchase and develop new units of scattered-site housing.

In July, the 100,000 Homes Campaign ranked the Association No. 2 in the nation in the percentage of chronically homeless people moving into permanent housing each month. In addition, 93% of Association tenants who once lived on the streets did not return to homelessness in 2012.

Strategy: Move quietly at first

When Brose became executive director of the Association in 1993, board members were already focused on solving the problem of homelessness, thanks in part to a pair of board-commissioned studies. The first study, commissioned in the late 1980s, found that untreated mental illness was a “frequent ingredient” among the city’s homeless individuals. The second study explored housing options available to the Association and other local housing advocates, in light of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which boosted penalties and enforcement capabilities to prevent discrimination against individuals in housing due to their disabilities.

“In Tulsa, we have made a real effort to address stigma through supportive housing,” Brose said at the Symposium, noting that many municipalities pursue “traditional” sources of housing, which include housing that is:

·         owned by a local housing authority,

·         paid for by housing vouchers,

·         subsidized under Section 8,

·         funded by tax credits offered to property developers, or 

·         financed using Section 811 supportive housing capitaladvanced by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, (HUD).

By 1990, the Association had pursued both Section 8 and developer-tax-credit-financed housing options, but a consultant suggested exploring private funding options as well.  One key benefit of this approach—attractive to the Association’s board and local housing advocates—was that private funding would enable essential projects to move forward more quietly—out of the public eye—in their formative stages.

This low-key approach would minimize the risk that projects benefitting people coping with homelessness, mental illness, addictions, and disabilities could be killed or delayed in public hearings, where “running smack-dab into stigma and discrimination—and all of the fear that sometimes drives it,” is not uncommon, said Brose. 

“What we did was think about braiding public and private money,” Brose said. “To start, we found a HUD demonstration grant. Then we leveraged private funds and looked at developing housing with a debt-free model. If we could own it debt-free, we could provide housing with the maximum affordability for the residents.”

Next, the group sought to create a 50/50 mix of residents in the housing that it developed. “The goal was to have half of the residents be individuals living with a mental illness or in some state of recovery, while the rest would be what we call ‘market-rate renters,’ ” Brose said. “In this type of mixed model, you can’t tell who is who and everybody integrates nicely into the community.”

“Out of the woodwork”

The Association’sfirst housing project was its Walker Hall Transitional Living Center, which opened in early 1991. Walker Hall is still in operation and has helped hundreds of Tulsans rebuild their lives.

“In the early ’90s,” Brose said, “we found that people had a hard time going from Walker Hall into traditional housing, so we found we needed more housing.”

With the help of another HUD grant, the Association purchased another apartment building, intending to renovate it and utilize the 50/50 model to create a mixed population of residents. But this time, the mixed model didn’t work.

“There were so many people,” Brose said. “There was an extreme level of demand among those that we were trying to serve.” The Association soon discovered that the community’s need for safe, affordable, and decent housing stretched far beyond the population of those homeless due to poorly treated mental illnesses.