National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Supported Housing Can Be the Key to Recovery

By Shannon Peterson

Affordable housing with supportive services can be a foundation for recovery from mental illness. I work for a non-profit agency that provides supportive housing for adults living with mental illness and I’d like to use a graduate of the program, whom I’ll call Owen, to illustrate how a housing program can support and promote recovery from mental illness.

Owen had been homeless for several years before coming to our program, when his symptoms of schizophrenia were most severe. He was hospitalized a number of times and eventually placed on conservatorship and into a licensed residential care facility, where he was given daily care and supervision.  As he received services and began to learn to manage his symptoms and recovery, he left the facility and moved into one of our shared housing homes.

In the supported housing program, Owen had a private bedroom and shared the common areas with other adults recovering from mental illness. The homes are independent settings with no staff present day-to-day, but there are regular meetings between staff and the residents to provide support and guidance.  Residents are expected to engage in structured activity outside the house 20 hours each week or more; these activities can include any combination of work, school, volunteering, clubhouse or Wellness Center participation, appointments, 12-step meetings, religious services, or any activity that helps the individual maintain a schedule and use time productively. During his stay at the house, Owen formed mutually supportive relationships with peers in the house, and soon found employment with his new stability and self-confidence.

After several years at the supportive housing, Owen moved into one of the subsidized apartments, where he paid one-third of his income for rent. The apartments feature on-site support services seven days a week, and Owen dropped in briefly several times a week to discuss his day and often to seek reassurance. Although he had substantially recovered from his illness, he continued to experience mild to moderate paranoia and he found it helpful to “check out” his daily experiences and perceptions with someone he trusted. Owen also formed friendships with other residents in the building and participated in social and recreational activities arranged by the agency.

Eventually, Owen began to seek relationships and activities in the community more often. He started taking classes at a nearby community college, and became involved in a romantic relationship. As he continued to recover, he learned that his application for Section 8 had reached the top of the waiting list, and he decided to move out into a mainstream apartment not far from the from the subsidized and supported apartments.

Owen has now been living independently outside the supportive housing program for seven years, and he continues to develop his skills and improve in different areas of his life. Owen remains in contact with program staff and peers and enthusiastically participates in the annual camp offered for adults with mental illness.

Owen’s progress has been assisted at every stage by affordable and appropriate housing with support services. He considers himself lucky to have had access to a variety of settings that met his changing requirements. Owen’s story illustrates the benefits of housing for people who battle mental illnesses; it shows the importance of the role of housing in the recovery of the individual. Furthermore, it highlights the need for housing options, including both shared and private living arrangements, with on-site services when needed and completely independent housing when ready. Suitable housing supports recovery!

Shannon Peterson is a NAMI California board member and the NAMI California Consumer Council representative.