In tight housing market, people with mental illness suffer more than most

Bend Bulletin, Oct. 25, 2015

No camping signThe lack of housing might be dire in Central Oregon, but the situation is even more so for those who experience mental illness.

Housing exists in the form of residential treatment facilities and temporary motel stays, but long-term housing options are often few and far between.

One of the biggest barriers can be the stigma attached to someone who has been treated for mental illness and who may have minor criminal offenses as a result of their health condition.

“The vast majority of the folks we see just need regular housing in the community — an apartment or house,” said Nancy Tyler, program manager for adult treatment with Deschutes County Behavioral Health. “When someone doesn’t have housing, you can imagine what the impact to their mental health issues would be.”

“I think this is something community mental health providers across the state are struggling with,” said DeAnn Carr, deputy director of county behavioral health. “For clients to be successful, it’s just the basic needs. When those resources aren’t available, that can exacerbate the mental health challenges.”

Tyler said the biggest issue right now is simply the lack of availability. Deschutes County is able to provide rental assistance for mental health clients through a state grant. It also pays for temporary housing for clients with state funds.

The housing barriers can lead some to a life of homelessness. Not everyone on the street or in homeless camps is dealing with mental illness, but there tends to be a correlation.

“Those folks that don’t present very well, are a little odd or eccentric, that probably plays a role in the competitive rental market,” said Cody Standiford, with Central Oregon Veterans Outreach.

“People notoriously fear what they don’t understand,” said Tory Flory, outreach coordinator with COVO. “One of the most misunderstood conditions that we have out there is mental illness.”

The veterans outreach group visits homeless camps in the region offering information about social services and clothing, propane, food and other basic needs.

Standiford said the mental health issues they encounter can range from “mild anxiety to full blown psychosis.” Some may be “self-medicating” as well with drugs and alcohol, he said.

Mental health housing received attention during this year’s Oregon legislative session. The Legislature approved a $20 million budget item earmarked for projects that will create housing for Oregonians dealing with addiction disorders or mental illness.

An advisory group was formed to create criteria for the housing projects. The money was allocated by the Legislature to the state Housing and Community Services department.

Chris Bouneff, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Oregon, said the housing money is a major investment for a population that is traditionally underserved.

“While it is not going to come close to the need, it’s a fantastic step forward,” said Bouneff. “It really underscores how much better our understanding is of the needs of those with mental illness.”

Bids to receive the housing money will begin being accepted next spring, said Bouneff. The money is expected to be awarded to housing projects by fall 2016.

The type of housing could include long-term treatment as well as independent living opportunities.

Some of the funding could reach Central Oregon, but in the meantime, housing availability will remain an issue.

Becky Elger, intensive community services supervisor with Deschutes County, said building relationships with landlords willing to rent to mental health clients has been one solution.

“We greatly appreciate that because that helps their stability and their long-term success,” said Elger.

Standiford, with COVO, said the organization and its partners need to continue to advocate for vulnerable populations knowing that state funding often goes to more urban high-population centers in the state.