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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 02:56 am

Housing with Hope

Hope Springs Apartments helps build independence for tenants with mental disabilities


The modernistic Hope Springs apartment building sits across Eighth Street from the troubled Hildebrandt high-rise, visible in background.

“I love this palace,” beams Joann, sitting on a flower-patterned couch as mid-morning sunlight floods her one-bedroom apartment. A Spongebob Squarepants episode plays muted in the background. She happily explains it is her canary’s favorite show. “Where I used to live, I had a lot of trouble, people picked on me over there and pushed me around. I’m not scared anymore.”

Joann [not her real name] is one of the first tenants to take up residence at Hope Springs Apartments. The newly opened two-story, 36-unit complex at 1135 N. Ninth St. was built for $3.3 million to serve as high-quality, affordable housing for people with psychiatric disabilities. The building began accepting tenants at the beginning of February, and all but four units are spoken for, with eight currently occupied.  It is administered by SIU Medical School’s Community Support Network, which is now headquartered on the Hope Springs premises.

Dr. Stephen Soltys, chair of the psychiatry department at SIU Medical School, had extensive experience with permanent supportive housing complexes similar to Hope Springs while serving as director of the Department of Mental Health in South Carolina. “When I first came here in 2002, I was really surprised that Springfield didn’t have any high-quality, supportive housing programs for people suffering from mental illness, so when [recently retired CSN executive director] Karen Lee and [SIU clinical coordinator] Peggy Raabe came to me with the idea for Hope Springs, I just told them, ‘charge.’”

CSN clients relax in a Hope Springs common area.

 “Our mission is to help individuals with severe and persistent mental illness to remain independent and functional in the community,” says new CSN executive director Trisha Malott. “We provide permanent supportive housing. The goal is to help keep people out of institutions and hospitals and allow them to live as independently as possible, while we provide support.”

That support can take the form of services such as case management, with onsite caregivers to dispense and observe daily medication, as well as assistance with more practical matters like transportation to and from doctors’ appointments. However, independence is the primary objective. The centralized location of Hope Springs allows its tenants to have readier access to resources such as grocery stores and bus lines than is often possible for people with similar disabilities. Laundry rooms on both floors of the complex add an extra level of convenience for tenants, who are never forced to leave the building, let alone venture up and down stairs, just to wash their clothes.

Sue Mertz has seen her quality of life take a sharp turn for the better in just the brief time since moving to Hope Springs from her previous residence at Brittany Court, a mobile home park. The eastside location of the trailer court was enough to keep her quite isolated, both from the care required by her disability and from basic daily necessities. “I used to have to get my brother to come and take me to the bank or to the store,” she explains. Sue has already gotten accustomed to taking SMTD buses, which stop near the Hope Springs entrance. She has also made exploratory excursions into the immediate surroundings, finding the neighborhood friendly and safe. “I first thought that the roads might be kinda scary to walk across but I got that down pat now,” she says. In addition to the relative autonomy of movement and pleasant environment, the new building allows Sue’s caseworkers to see her more often than they ever could in her previous situation, a change that can often be significant. On the morning she was interviewed, Sue had been able to express concerns about some side effects she was experiencing from her medication, a serious health issue which might have taken weeks to address in her previous situation. Sue can also participate in group sessions far more easily, since many of them happen on-site and all she has to do is walk down the hall from her apartment in order to attend. “I don’t walk outside at night,” she says. “I’m still too afraid to go out at night, usually. But I did that in my old place, too.”

SIU Community Support Network executive director Trisha Malott speaks at the Hope Springs grand opening ceremony.

One tenant’s habitual cautiousness aside, matters of security have been at the forefront of discussions about Hope Springs from the project’s inception. The primary worry is that the extreme vulnerability of this particular disabled population will encourage predators to target them. Concerned neighborhood residents point to the high volume of police calls to the nearby Hildebrandt Apartments, a public housing high-rise, as a potential indicator of danger on the horizon for Hope Springs.

“From day one, the neighborhood association has been concerned about the security for the building not being 24/7,” says Steve Combs of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, noting that the sort of predatory activity that he is most worried about is less likely to happen in the winter months. “It’s a very nice building, visually, just to look at. Our worry is that if it attracts more undesirables to the neighborhood once the weather gets warmer, that could spill over into the neighborhood itself. But nothing has happened so far, and my hope is that all of my concerns will turn out to be nonexistent.”

 “We haven’t had any complaints,” confirms Trisha Malott. “I know there has been a concern about safety in the past and I can also say that we haven’t encountered any difficulties.” While initial plans to provide 24-hour security were eventually abandoned, CSN staffers are in fact on call 24 hours a day, with SIU and the police department both monitoring the environs throughout the day and night. “I’ve seen them drive through on a regular basis,” says Malott, “so it’s not just based on this being what I’ve been told – I actually see them drive through pretty regularly.” While a press release circulated in early December 2012 stated that “security features include closed-circuit television cameras,” these have yet to be installed, with Malott describing CCTV security “an option that continues to be explored.” The building’s exterior is partially enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, with the outside doors of the complex locked at all times. The property manager is in his office, with a view overlooking the entranceway, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. There is a keypad by the front door and each tenant has a unique code, which they use to get in and out of the building, in addition to each having keys to their own apartment. “I want to make sure no culprits get in,” says Sue Mertz, “so I like the door system.”

Hope Springs resident Sue Mertz relaxing in her new one-bedroom apartment.

Dr. Soltys, for one, believes many of the neighborhood resident’s concerns may be overstated, noting that in his experience in South Carolina, there were typically fears in communities at the outset, but after a quality facility actually moves in, the residents would come to regard these buildings and their tenants as positive additions to their neighborhoods. “Individuals who want to prey on the mentally ill don’t like supervised, well-structured programs,” he asserts. “They like situations where an individual has an apartment without any visible support. I think that rather than being a magnet for predators, Hope Springs will actually be a repelling force, because anyone who has an ounce of sense will be able to tell that this is a well-supervised apartment complex, not a typical, run-down building where it’s every man for himself.”

As befits the mission of independence integral to permanent supportive housing, residents are able to come and go at will. In many ways, and by design, Hope Springs is much like any other apartment building. The interiors of the units themselves, all either studios or one-bedrooms, are both utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing. Each apartment boasts a hardwood laminate floor, which is both durable and easy to clean. “It is thicker and nicer than what goes into many people’s homes,” Malott notes. The studios are fairly large, with roomy bathrooms the rule in all units. A few apartments on the first floor are fully accessible by the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, while the rest are adaptable. The developers at Bluestem Housing Partners and Critchfield Construction, the suburban Chicago-area firms that built the complex, made a point of installing energy-efficient appliances. The hallways are decorated in cheerful colors, as opposed to the drab palette often associated with institutional facilities, something which Hope Springs Apartments is, again, emphatically not.

Dr. Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, at the Hope Springs grand opening ceremony in December, standing in the room named in his honor

Of course, the grounds are still new and several features are still in development, including the Glenn Poshard Community Center, named for the president of Southern Illinois University, who helped usher the building to completion. It is an area where group meetings can be held and residents can congregate to read or play board games, but it currently does not quite convey the proper mood. “We are in the process of ordering new furniture, with a grant that we received,” explains Malott. “Soon it will feel more like a living room than a medical waiting room.” Other features slated for the coming months include a patio and community garden where tenants will be able to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

The plan had always been to keep the facility relatively small, in contrast to a high-rise. “One of the features of permanent supportive housing,” explains Malott, “is that there becomes a sense of community among the tenants, which helps promote more psycho-social functioning. They start to spend time together and eventually become their own support network. In a high-rise such as the Hildebrandt, you may know who your neighbor is and you may pass them, but there is not that sense of community.” The importance of community extends outward as well, with plans to have groups of tenants walk through the neighborhood picking up trash. “We want to be part of the neighborhood,” says Malott, “and while there may be other groups in the neighborhood doing those things, we’d like to be a part of that, also.”  

Scott Faingold is a frequent contributor to IT. He can be reached via scottfaingold@gmail.com

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