he Tulsa Convention Center might seem like a strange place for a Habitat home dedication, but that’s exactly where Gaylia Patrick’s house was built. Before being moved to its permanent lot, her home was dedicated as part of the opening of the 2012 National Zarrow Mental Health Symposium & Mental Health America Annual Conference, hosted by the Mental Health Association in Tulsa. Gaylia is a single mom of four, including 3-month-old Imani and 6-year-old Marcel, who has many special needs.
“What a way to start a conference that’s about housing — to actually have somebody moving in to their new home!” says MHAT executive director Mike Brose. It got people talking, he adds, about “how moved they were by what that looks like for a community to come together around an individual and help them build their house.”
The focus of the conference was housing, recovery and community support systems for people living with mental illness, so it seemed natural for MHAT to partner with Tulsa Habitat for Humanity. The two groups had joined forces eight years before, when they built a house to open a prior national conference. MHAT and Habitat also have another connection in Ken Klein, former chair of Habitat for Humanity International’s board of directors and current member of MHAT’s advisory board.
“I can think of no better an example, when we at Habitat speak of collaborating with another nonprofit for the benefit of one of our homebuyers,” says Klein, who helped work on Gaylia’s house. “The professional services that MHAT will provide to the Patrick family will give them a much better chance to succeed, delivered in the stable, healthy and safe living environment that Habitat and Gaylia are creating.”
Brose explains that MHAT has a “housing first” theory, focusing on getting people in to stable homes, which then lets them focus on taking care of their other needs. “What we’ve learned is that if you don’t have a place to live, nothing else seems to work as effectively,” he says. “If you think of the metaphor of a train and that the engine is housing, and if you can get people in a safe, affordable, decent place to live, man, the rest of those cars in that train — health care, employment, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, sobriety, training — all those other things get pulled by that engine.”
For those living with mental illness, finding and maintaining a stable place to live isn’t always easy. Overcrowding, unsafe conditions, bad neighborhoods, instability and unreasonable costs all have negative effects on mental health; such conditions can cause depression and anxiety and make it nearly impossible for someone living with mental illness to get better and stay in recovery. The National Housing Council even released a joint briefing to call for the public health and housing sectors to work together on housing problems, as the two are so intertwined.
Part of MHAT’s work is owning and managing 19 apartment buildings with rental units for people living with mental illness, giving them that stable, affordable home required to focus on getting well and staying that way. Renting is often the best option for many of the people with whom MHAT works, but Brose says a small and growing number are ready for and moving into homeownership. That’s where a partnership with Habitat is beneficial.
In addition to traditional Habitat mortgages, the affiliate and MHAT hope to work together to develop new ways to serve those living in recovery. “By building a stronger partnership/collaborative spirit, I think that Tulsa Habitat and MHAT could form a transitional housing strategy for moving those who were renting with MHAT into homeownership with Tulsa Habitat,” says the affiliate’s executive director Paul Kent.
“Both mental and physical health issues are needful of the same attention and professional intervention, and both require a stable and healthy living environment to maximize the opportunity for success,” Klein says. “Habitat provides a platform for this environment to exist. It’s not guaranteed, but is the strong foundation upon which to build.”
A testament to how that foundation provides the opportunity for those living in recovery to succeed, Habitat DeKalb County homeowner Jerome Lawrence is grateful for his home. “My gratitude is immense, and decidedly homeownership is one of the best things to have happened to me,” he says.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia during his senior year of college, he had to drop out and move back home. After some time off for treatment, he earned a visual arts degree from Georgia State University in 1984. He continued to live with his mother until 2003, when he moved into the home he built with Habitat.
Jerome defines recovery as “a state where I have some idea of what to do when things go wrong with my ability to think and reason well.
“I know of no secrets to achieve while going through periods of mental duress,” he adds, “other than to say that I am acutely aware that things change. I know I’ll feel differently tomorrow than I do today, and small efforts add up over time.”
Although his journey — including homeownership — has not always been easy, his achievements are impressive. An accomplished artist, he runs his online art gallery while working as the special projects coordinator at Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network. He has won awards and been featured in exhibitions all over the country, showing and selling paintings and prints created in the studio at his Habitat home.
Through Habitat, Jerome found fans in Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who have bought and hung his paintings at the Carter Center in Atlanta. A longtime advocate for those living with mental illness, Mrs. Carter says she’ll never forget helping to lay the cornerstone of Jerome’s house in 2002.
“Volunteers from mental health organizations and churches and even mental health consumers from a nearby hospital all came to help build Jerome’s house. It was exciting for me to see so many people willing to reach out and help him with his recovery,” she recalls. “Jerome’s house is a very special place, for it includes a studio that enables him to pursue his career as an artist — and to support himself and his wife.”
After so many years of working to improve both mental health care and housing, Mrs. Carter says the connection between the two is undeniable. “Advances in medical and scientific research over the decades have created an opportunity for people with even the most serious mental illnesses to recover and live productive lives,” she says. “Having a home is fundamental to the recovery process and the catalyst for achieving so many other aspects of a meaningful life.”