Written by Karen Carlson• Photography by Jason Johnson
Susan Mertz, 57, lives in a run-down trailer in Springfield. Rotting floors, a leaky toilet and a dilapadated shower made the trailer’s safety questionable. "It is too big for me," Mertz says of the three-bedroom, two bathroom home. "I can’t clean it." In addition to her $230 monthly rent, Mertz paid a hefty utility bill. A cold winter could cost $700 a month for heat. Even last year’s mild winter cost her $350 a month to stay warm.
Her former neighborhood, on the far east side of Springfield, was decent, she says, but far from grocery stores or restaurants. With no car, Mertz walked to the bus stop about a mile away.
Living alone, Mertz was a target for people to take advantage of her kind and generous nature. Drug dealers lurked in the shadows. "I get scared sometimes at night, and strangers just seem to knock on my door and come in."
In late November, Mertz was excited at the thought that she would be moving out. "My walls are wood, and it doesn’t get much light," she says. "I watch TV all day and get depressed. I can’t wait to move to my new place. I hope the walls will be white." In January, Mertz became one of the 36 residents of Hope Springs Apartments, a new, two-building development at 1135 N. Ninth St., in Springfield for clients with disabilities. The tenants include clients of Community Support Network (CSN), a program of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, that provides counseling and treatment for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness. Mertz says she has suffered from mental disorders since she was 14. She has been a CSN client since 1991.
CSN provides intensive case management to a maximum of 100 clients with severe, chronic mental illnesses. Common illnesses are schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder and major depression. Some CSN clients live in dilapidated housing in dangerous sections of the city and subsist on about $600 a month, according to Trisha Malott, executive director of CSN.
"Hope Springs Apartments provides our CSN clients an opportunity to live in clean, safe, affordable rental housing, which is difficult for them to find," Malott says. "The clients have better access to city resources, including grocery stores, pharmacies and transportation," Malott said. "They can live independently, which is the goal of the CSN program." Malott envisions that more of the tenants of Hope Springs may eventually come under the CSN wing.
“ SIU clients get a better living environment, the Community Support Network staff gets improved office space and the area is improved with the new building.”
A Fresh Start
Years ago, the area of Ninth Street was a busy block of fast food restaurants frequented by north-enders, employees of IEPA and students from Lanphier High School. With the closing of those restaurants, the buildings had become dilapidated, infested with rodents and a target for crime.
The genesis of Hope Springs began when SIU School of Medicine CSN clinical services coordinator Peggy Raabe was looking for housing for her clients. Karen Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry and former executive director of CSN, was critical to completing the arduous, day-to-day tasks of moving the project forward. Lee retired in December 2011 with the partners in place and construction underway, including Bluestem Housing Partners, which owns the Hope Springs complex.
"Although many of Karen's clients were housed, she knew them well enough to understand they were still in a housing crisis. Many were living in substandard conditions, being victimized by neighbors and in unsafe neighborhoods. Karen had a vision to change all of that," says Audra Hamernik, Bluestem's executive director. "We met and her enthusiasm was contagious. We knew immediately that we wanted to help develop housing for CSN clients."
Hamernik says it was a natural fit for Bluestem to own the building and SIU to provide services to these people in need. "It's become more of a partnership than we ever imagined. SIU clients get a better living environment, the Community Support Network staff gets improved office space, and the area is improved with the new building."
The result, two years later, is Hope Springs, a pair of two-story buildings that has become a bustling center with 36 apartments, as well as the Community Support Network offices at the Glenn Poshard Community Resource Center. The 23 one-bedroom and 13 studio apartments include Energy Star appliances, high-efficiency water heaters and HVAC units. Each apartment is about 550 square feet, with a kitchen and a bathroom. Laundry facilities are located on site. The grounds include gardens with outdoor seating and a central space for entertainment, classes and group therapy.
The 36 tenants include 14 clients from CSN, 14 referred from the Department of Mental Health and eight from the Springfield Housing Authority. To qualify for occupancy, the tenants must earn at or below 50 percent of the average median income in Sangamon County, or $24,500 for one person. Rent is based on the client’s income, ranging from $403 a month for a studio to $498 a month for a one-bedroom. Clients will pay for their rent from various funding sources, including Social Security, disability, as well as funds from the Department of Mental Health and support from the Springfield Housing Authority.
An on-call case manager staffs the facility for half-days on the weekends. Security features include closed-circuit television cameras, locked facilities, access to SIU Security and a Springfield Crisis Intervention Team that is trained to assist people with mental disabilities. "Hope Springs is a safe and supportive environment for residents to maintain independence," Malott said. "And it’s the first permanent supportive housing in the Springfield area."
Permanent supportive housing means that the tenants live independently — with help from the Community Support Network at SIU School of Medicine.
Studies indicate that such permanent supportive housing improves symptoms of mental illness. An article in Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal (Fall 2005 29:2) noted that numerous studies indicate that people with support systems and safe housing stay in these stable environments, staving off homelessness. What follows can be a repair of personal relationships, greater self-confidence and dignity — an overall improvement in quality of life and decreased reliance on shelters and the costs associated with homelessness.
A Psychiatric Services article noted that participants in a randomized controlled trial of the impact of supportive housing on mentally ill patients reported improved "self-ratings of symptom distress" with "low rates of hospitalizations and substance abuse during the study." (Dec 2009, 60:12)
Community Support Network
An independent model of care, the Community Support Network (CSN) program provides a complete recovery program with intensive therapy to those suffering from mental illness. Currently, 80 adults with severe and persistent psychiatric disabilities are clients of the program. The goal of CSN is to prevent the clients from relapsing into hospital and help them live independently, minimizing the risk of homelessness. CSN serves up to 100 people. The program is funded through Medicaid billings to the Department of Mental Health and through donations to the program.
An 11-person multidisciplinary team of social workers, case managers, nurses and financial case managers directly assists clients with daily symptom management and helps them meet their basic needs. "This could include basic tasks such as shopping, doing laundry and getting to their medical appointments," Malott says. The case workers — on call for the clients 24/7— also assist with medication management, learning social skills, managing finances and finding job opportunities, as well as helping to coordinate with primary medical care services.
Thanks to Hope Springs, the CSN staff is now on site to assist clients. CSN client Hannah Sawers, 38, thinks this will help her socialize more with her friends and the CSN staff. "I’ve been in my apartment for five years, and I’m ready for a change," says Sawers, who suffers from depression. She says CSN has been great to help her remember to take her medications. "They make me feel like part of the family," she says. "It will be nice to live close to them and be in a new building."
Malott agrees that the socialization opportunities at Hope Springs can greatly help clients such as Sawers. "For CSN clients, ‘recovery’ means the clients can manage their own symptoms and function in society without much reliance on CSN." CSN clients were offered residency at Hope Springs based on income and severity of mental disability. "The apartments will help the CSN program operate more efficiently and improve access for clients and CSN staff," says Malott.
The Hope Springs Apartments also may help CSN expand its client roster and staff, Malott said, adding that CSN may add other tenants of Hope Springs to their program. "Our services are available for the tenants, as well as referrals for treatment."
Out of the Shadows
After living in a trailer for 28 years, Mertz looks forward to the community environment. "I’ll know some of the neighbors who are going to live there. I’ve already invited my best girl friend to come over and visit me. It’s a whole new, fresh start for me."
Mertz suffers from bipolar disorder and depression. "I hear voices and see things, and my concentration isn’t very good. I stopped learning, and that’s not a good thing. You gotta keep learning."
A positive learning environment is one of the features of Hope Springs. The staff are planning to plant a garden with the residents and hold nutrition and cooking classes in the community room. Mertz hopes to learn how to use the Internet and take pictures on her cell phone.
Numerous other partners assisted in the project, including Critchfield Construction of Elmhurst, Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA). Illinois Department of Mental Health, Springfield Housing Authority and others. The grand opening was held on December 5, 2012."There’s no greater mission than serving those in the shadows of life."
The grand opening was a big event, with more than 50 community supporters gathering into the community resource center, named after SIU President Glenn Poshard, who helped secure funding for the project. "There’s no greater mission than serving those in the shadows of life," Poshard said.
Ward 5 Alderman Sam Cahnman said, "This area had been a breeding ground for crime, and now is a beautiful facility."
IHDA executive director Mary Kenny said, "These people will have better lives. They belong in the community." IHDA gave $5 million to the project.
"This has been a true partnership," Hamernik emphasized. "Hope Springs Apartments is truly a community within a community."
Susan Mertz is eager to move into Hope Springs in the coming weeks. "This is sharp," she exclaimed, looking at her new apartment. She was especially excited about the kitchen and bathroom. "I don’t cook much right now, but I may start." Hope Springs is the the beginning of a fresh start for her, the other tenants, and the neighbors along Ninth Street. "I hope to stay in the SIU program and maybe get a job," Mertz says. "And I hope to start learning again."
Mertz now can walk to a bus stop just steps from her apartment. A grocery store is just a few blocks away; a McDonald’s is just across the street. "The location is perfect," she says.
And her walls? They are white.