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Mentally ill young people exiting Lucas County's criminal justice system can face homelessness, and a local nonprofit organization wants to help.
"We've got to do something to break the cycle of homelessness, poverty and despair that so many people are feeling," said John Hoover, executive director of Neighborhood Properties, Inc., which works to provide affordable housing for the mentally ill.
In the next six to 12 months, NPI expects to begin developing First Avenue, an apartment complex in Lucas County that will open its doors to youthful ex-offenders who suffer from mental illness.
The tenants will live with a full-time manager and work on finding education, employment, and freedom from the criminal justice system. The idea is preventative, not punitive, intended to keep people from ending up in trouble with the law or living on the streets.
"For people coming out of institutions, homelessness is an issue," said Jacqueline Martin, executive director of the Lucas County Mental Health Board. "They've either burnt all their bridges with family members or with landlords, and they have difficulty finding housing."
First Avenue is intended to combine safe, affordable housing with easy access to mental health and other services. It will target ex-offenders who are between the ages of 18 and 25, and have been diagnosed with a chronic mental illness.
In 2003 there were 939 criminal cases filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court involving a defendant between those ages, according to John Creeger, Director of Integrated Justice Systems. There are no statistics kept on the percentage of defendants with mental health issues.
"They're going to come out of the justice system with no place to go," said Jim Guenther, vice president of operations at NPI. He said the best candidates will be people who could function independently and would not be suitable for a group home with 24-hour care. They'll simply need guidance and assistance with matters like applying for jobs or working toward a GED. First Avenue residents will come from shelters, foster homes, and the streets and will be referred by mental health agencies.
"We see a lot more kids with mental health issues [in the criminal justice system] than we did five, 10 years ago," said Andrea Kruse, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Youth Services. The department reports that 35% of youth offenders need mental health services. NPI is surveying northwest Toledo for a suitable apartment building, preferably a brick one with aluminum trim to keep maintenance costs low. There will be 12 to 14 units for residents and one for a live-in manager, along with meeting space for activities and group therapy. Mr. Guenther said the best complex would be on a bus route within close range of a grocery store and a recreational opportunity. Many of the residents likely won't have cars.
The housing will be permanent in nature, but "we all hope people develop greater skills and income and move on," said Mr. Hoover. The rent will be $450 per month, which is standard for NPI housing. First Avenue will not accept sex offenders, arsonists, murderers or those convicted of crimes against children.
Nonetheless, "based on the need we hear, I would think it would fill up quickly," said Mr. Guenther.
Much of the responsibility for the success of the program will fall on the live-in manager, who has not yet been chosen. Mr. Hoover said NPI usually employs people with strong credentials in drug, alcohol and mental health issues.
"But sometimes what you need is someone with a lot of common sense and street smarts," he said, "who has walked in the shoes of those people."
The idea surfaced at a mental health board meeting of the Youth of Color task force. NPI resource development coordinator Mary Price and Mr. Guenther wrote the grant, which was submitted to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. In January of 2003 HUD granted $945,000 to help cover First Avenue's development and operating costs.
"This is what we're trying to encourage across the country," said Brian Sullivan, HUD spokesman.
Right now NPI is providing HUD with more information so a grant agreement can be written. The nonprofit is also working on acquiring funds from the state departments of mental health and corrections.
Rent will cover what remains of the total $1.3 million tab. To Mr. Hoover, that's money well spent in prevention.
"The cost of operating the criminal justice system is staggering, and that's not a solution, it's a punishment," he said. "I've seen people recover. I've seen people go on and have successful and productive lives."
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