It’s become clear to Pamela Baker that local residents struggling with mental illness have become increasingly homeless by surveying the parking lot of NAMI Collier County.
Many of those sleeping in their cars appear to be women in their 50s. NAMI seems a safer alternative to the mean streets, and hot meals are provided daily at the Sarah Ann Drop-In Center (which averages 500 visits a month). “We’re getting ready to put in a shower,” notes Baker, NAMI executive director. It’s not uncommon to see four or five different homeless faces at the drop-in center daily, she said.
To tackle the problem of homelessness head-on, NAMI recently received a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation’s Changing Needs Fund to hire a full-time supported housing program specialist. The role will be filled by a part-timer who will develop a network of available rental properties and serve as the point-person for renters and landlords to establish the process and nurture an environment for successful, sustainable independent living.
“More and more, mental health agencies are dealing with homelessness. If we can, we should. We have to move into this service. We’re facing way more homeless people than ever before,” said Baker, who served on the Collier County Mental Health and Addiction Ad Hoc Advisory Committee. The committee released its first-ever strategic plan in December. “Increasing housing and supportive services for persons with serious mental illness and/or substance dependence” was the No. 2 priority.
Baker said that individuals with mental illness face barriers others may not, including paranoia and the inability to pay the minimal $75 per week required at the local shelter. Individuals with untreated mental illness often have difficulty communicating with their landlord, Baker said, or lose their jobs, and are evicted. Problems snowball when NAMI clients become homeless and can’t be reached, Baker said. “If they don’t have a place to live, we can’t get them to services they need,” she said. NAMI Collier provides support and services to more than 16,000 individuals annually—free of charge.
Building the housing program will be uphill for the new specialist, who will cultivate a network of “benevolent landlords who are willing to work with our population in the first place.” The specialist will navigate the above-market housing crisis and walk step-by-step with NAMI clients to meet federal standards for “supportive living” that guide housing funding.
Thanks to the grant, “with a full-time person, we can help them quickly get off the streets. It’s going to help people much more quickly get out of homelessness and back to health, and on with their life,” Baker said.