McCright: A call to action on housing the mentally ill in Chattanooga

McCright: A call to action on housing the mentally ill in Chattanooga

April 15th, 2019 by Elizabeth McCright in Opinion Columns

Betsy McCright speaks to the editors of the Times Free Press in this 2018 staff file photo.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

With more than 6,000 rental units in Hamilton County, the Chattanooga Housing Authority is the largest provider of affordable rental housing.

In our public housing portfolio of properties CHA owns, manages, and maintains, we offer independent living apartments to people with average incomes of $9,318 annually. CHA residents have state and federally mandated lease agreements governed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations.

But what happens when a resident is unable to comply with the lease terms due to mental health issues, often exacerbated by the resident's inability to understand the importance of taking prescribed medications or seeking appropriate treatment? Under these circumstances, the CHA staff is required to balance the interests of lease-abiding neighbors with those of residents who may have issues that include hoarding, pest infestation, unsanitary living conditions, fire safety concerns, and non-emergency calls to 911. These lease-abiding neighbors want and deserve a pleasant and safe place to live, and it is CHA's desire and duty to provide them with that.

The CHA staff identifies available resources and refers residents to services that might enable them to continue to live independently, but we cannot require them to accept assistance; we cannot require them to take medications; and we cannot require family members to involve themselves in helping to solve the problems. In fact, when a resident's situation deteriorates significantly, family support often evaporates.

What happens to these residents who end up living in extreme isolation without engaged family members, friends, church family, access to physical and mental health services, and a host of other supports that many Chattanoogans take for granted?

CHA provides one piece of the puzzle. We provide a home. But CHA is not a licensed provider of assisted living, nursing home care, congregate care or hospice care.

Those circumstances demand greater community involvement in the way of medical and mental health care, better access to affordable health insurance, and individualized counseling. Without a comprehensive community support system, tragically, the most vulnerable residents face eviction and potential homelessness. CHA's mission is to provide housing. Eviction is always the last resort, only after tireless efforts to preserve a tenancy have failed.

The CHA is grateful for existing community partnerships. Mayor Andy Berke's Interagency Council on Homelessness is working diligently to coordinate a network of resources and streamline the process for housing the homeless.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is spearheading the Frequent Users Systems Engagement [FUSE) initiative, a movement to house people with persistent and continuous mental health issues who are frequent users of jails and hospitals. FUSE proposed to provide housing and 24/7 access to medical and mental health assistance.

CHI Memorial recently opened a medical clinic on site at CHA's Boynton Terrace Apartments that specializes in elderly health care. There are countless other organizations that serve Chattanooga's most vulnerable citizens.

Chattanooga needs more truly affordable options for nursing homes, assisted living facilities, congregate care, hospice care, and other types of wraparound services, and CHA stands ready to collaborate on these types of initiatives.

After all, everyone in Chattanooga deserves a place to live with dignity.

Elizabeth McCright is executive director of the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

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