Magazine article Behavioral Healthcare Executive

Tulsa on Track to End Chronic Homelessness: Mental Health Association's No-Debt Model Leverages Private Funds and Sparks Citywide Effort

Magazine article Behavioral Healthcare Executive

Tulsa on Track to End Chronic Homelessness: Mental Health Association's No-Debt Model Leverages Private Funds and Sparks Citywide Effort

Article excerpt

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, who spoke at 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 capital advanced 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 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. …

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