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At home with mental illness: Grant aims to get mentally ill off the streets

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2010 - More than a decade of sleeping in cars and abandoned houses while working as a stripper and a prostitute made Natisha Parker's every waking moment a never-ending nightmare.

By the time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008, Parker, 32, had endured a childhood with sexual molestation. Thirteen of her adult years were consumed by crack cocaine addiction, heavy drinking and dabbling in ecstasy, mushrooms, crystal meth and heroin.

During that period Parker said she was raped more than 20 times. At one point, she was held captive in a basement for three days --- a sexual slave with a gun to her head.

Desperate to escape her hellish existence, Parker twice went to rehab but wasn't ready to change. When she was 30, a third round of rehab proved to be the charm.

"I just got tired of the life I was in," Parker said. "It was terrible; there are no words that could possibly describe the things I went through every day, the dangers I put myself in, me being a woman."

Now off drugs and alcohol for two and a half years, Parker is living in her own apartment with the help of local agency Places for People and has frequent visits with her 10-year-old son, who's being raised by her mother.

Helping more people like Parker is the goal of a new grant shared by Places for People and three other St. Louis homeless providers. The five-year, $3.6 million St. Louis Partnership for Mental Health and Housing Transformation will help expand and improve programs for mentally ill homeless people, many of whom are use drugs and alcohol. The award is from the federal government through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"It's very important that when you're getting clean and trying to get better that you have someplace to stay, somewhere to call your own, even if it's just one room," Parker said.

Transforming the System

About 1,300 people are living in homeless shelters or on the streets in St. Louis, according to 2010 census figures. Fifty-five percent of them are mentally ill; half of them have serious psychotic disorders. But those with mental illness are often last in line for available housing.

"If a landlord or an organization has a choice between filling the unit with a single mother with kids or somebody with mental illness, they always choose the single mother with kids," said Don Cuvo, St. Louis Mental Health Board executive director.

The new grant is the latest chapter in the long story of how Missouri has historically failed to serve those with mental illness, according to Jackie Lukitsch, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) of St. Louis. From the dark days of institutionalization for most of the 1900s to the massive dump of the mentally ill onto the streets in the 1960s to today's lack of priority in available housing, Missouri has "never gotten it right."

"Now we have people with mental illness living in the community where they are not served well and they're jumping from negative situation to negative situation -- from jails and homeless shelters to the streets," Lukitsch said.

The "transformation" grant, which went into effect on Oct. 1, is designed to help agencies do just what its name implies: transform services for the homeless mentally ill. The grant, to be split among Places for People, Community Alternatives, Queen of Peace Center and St. Patrick Center doesn't just provide money to feed the current system; it also stipulates a reorganization of services and the instigation of "best practices," or programs whose success is proven by scientific research.

The end goal is to improve the process so that increased services live on after the grant money runs out.

The grant coincides with other positive developments for the mentally ill: State Treasurer Clint Zweifel is asking the Missouri Housing Development Commission to redirect $127 million in federal and state tax credits toward housing developments for the chronically homeless mentally ill. At the same time Places for People and Community Alternatives are planning to merge in 2011, a complementary move.

Places for People owns its own buildings and has a contract with Medicaid. Community Alternatives has an excellent grant-writing record and programs targeting numerous groups including veterans and those with HIV/AIDS.

"We'll be able to help more people and help them better," said Places for People executive director Francie Broderick.

Some Choose Homelessness over 'Crazy' Label

Helping the homeless requires more than just providing them with housing. Even when resources are available, those with mental illness often resist.

When Jerry Ellis, 48, a Navy veteran, a recovering alcoholic and crack cocaine addict with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, was living under the overpass near Del Taco on Grand Avenue, he heard that if you had a mental illness, you could get a place to live. But he wasn't buying it.

"Who wants to get labeled as crazy or sick?" Ellis said. "[I would say]" 'I'm not sick, I'm just down on my luck, I'm just having a problem right now.'"

But reality hit after the one-time $18-an-hour Monsanto employee tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of antidepressants he found on the street. During a subsequent involuntary 90-day hospitalization, Ellis got clean and was medicated for his mental illnesses. The "taste of sanity" made him hunger for more.

Sober and drug-free for the past year, Ellis works part-time at Places for People and runs a peer support group there. With the agency's help, he moved into an apartment, paid for with Social Security and veteran's benefits.

"I've got my own place, and I've got my finances in good shape," Ellis said. "It's pretty cool."

Nancy Fowler Larson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about issues of health and mental health.