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Pursuing the American dream

December 1, 2008
by Jeff Brown, MSW; Mary Griffiths Dickson, LMSW, LPC; and Kathleen Kovach, MEd
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An agency helps consumers live in less restrictive surroundings and even own their own homes

Attaining one's own home is the American dream. However, for many of those served by the Oakland County (Michigan) Community Mental Health Authority (OCCMHA), home leasing and purchasing are as difficult as they are for many Americans—in fact, even more so. While tough to attain, getting a “home of my own” is consistent with OCCMHA's mission of ensuring “social equity and improved quality of life” for those it serves. At the very foundation of this mission are the concepts of full citizenship and integrated community living.

OCCMHA also has a vision about full citizenship and community integration and what these mean to those it serves. In this vision, people carry the keys to their own homes, homes that they choose and lease or mortgage in their own names. They live alone or with people they choose; they belong to block clubs, book clubs, and civic clubs; and they are found in houses of worship, libraries, schools, local restaurants, and stores.

This vision of community integration is based on the conviction that people do best when they own or rent their own homes, sign their own mortgages/leases, choose their own neighborhoods, pick their own roommates, hire their own support staffs, and live with fewer people. Life has greater meaning when they know their neighbors, participate in civic activities, develop and experience community bonds, share common interests, have equal access to what the community offers, have equal protection, manage their own resources, have community friends, and fully participate in the life of their community.

Sadly, the current reality in Oakland County falls far short of meeting the need. We at OCCMHA are involved in implementing the next steps to take us closer to our vision of a future of fuller community integration.

Early steps

Thirty years ago, Michigan began pursuing a policy of closing state-operated institutions in favor of developing community-based residences for persons with developmental disabilities and/or mental illnesses. These first steps toward community integration were in the direction of six-person group homes. At the time the state lacked the dollars to fund this new group home policy. Therefore, it asked private investors to develop group home properties and to lease them to the state.

The original developers of the group homes had a vision of what it would mean to help those living in institutions return to their home communities. Many of these group homes were built with special features such as wide doorways, ramps, open floor plans, lower counters, extra-large bathrooms, or other modifications that provided accessibility to those with mobility challenges. At one point 235 licensed specialized residential group homes were in Oakland County.

Thirty years later, 185 specialized residences remain in Oakland County, scattered across many communities where, in some instances, the stigma of mental illnesses and developmental disabilities remains firmly attached to these group residences. In these settings some have become involved community members while others remain socially isolated in the midst of vibrant, active communities.

While many have been able to move to homes with fewer nonrelated adults, many more wait to move into smaller nonlicensed homes of their own that they share with one or two others. When six adults live together in a licensed home, no person may be left unsupervised by staff. Often this means that when someone goes to church, all go to church, or no one goes; when one goes to the doctor, all ride along. Residents have a very structured day and often are told when they will eat, what they will eat, where they will go during the day, and when lights are to be turned off at night. For some, this level of care is necessary for a period. Yet for many it is not, and they dream of the day when they can move to a nonlicensed home—perhaps a home they own—and make these decisions for themselves.

Michigan's mental health funding does not provide any easy answers for developing nonlicensed homes. Thus, individual community mental health organizations have had to look for alternative ways to address how they will meet their constituents' integrated housing needs.

Our plan

OCCMHA took steps to ensure integrated community housing when it created Community Housing Network, Inc. (CHN), an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) OCCMHA dedicated to meeting the housing needs of persons with disabilities in Oakland County. Under contract with OCCMHA, CHN is working to broaden the array of affordable and more inclusive housing for people OCCMHA serves. The emphasis is on developing housing alternatives that encourage and support independence, are close to employment and retail centers, and are in “home” communities where individuals were raised or where their parents or siblings live.

Together OCCMHA and CHN developed a five-year strategic housing plan which, among other things, requires OCCMHA's network of providers to:

  • incorporate housing information and preferences in person-centered plans;

  • evaluate all current housing stock;

  • ensure that the housing needs of persons with disabilities are incorporated into community-wide plans for affordable housing;

  • develop and maintain a centralized database that includes housing stock information as well as tenant preferences; and

  • create a Home Ownership Program.