As is true in other areas of rehabilitation practice, housing models are influenced by values. At Colorado Recovery, for example, one of our housing programs is driven by an attempt to utilize the mutual support that exists in the identity community of people who have experienced mental illness as opposed to following the more usual principle of “mainstreaming.”
Clustered Living versus Dispersed Housing
In an attempt to avoid creating mental health “ghettoes,” service planners often aim to place people with psychiatric disabilities in dispersed housing. They hope that by dispersing people in the larger community, healthy community members will provide the needed support. This seldom happens, however, and the people with mental disability often have to turn to professionals for assistance. For some clients, a more direct route to social inclusion and successful community living can be through enclave communities of people who have recently shared their experience of mental illness. Research on social integration indicates that there are a number of advantages in relying on other members of one’s identity community for assistance in developing the necessary elements of community living. We can harness this mutual support by developing clustered housing models for people with mental illness.
A mental health agency in San José, California, explored this notion in the 1990s. Instead of dispersed housing, clients’ apartments were located so that everyone lived within five minutes walking distance of the other residents. A space was rented for community activities in the geographic center of the housing. Instead of residential aides, staff were hired as community organizers and told that their task was to help foster a mutually supportive community. Three of these residential communities were created; one in a dense urban area, one in a suburban area, and one in a semi-rural area. The result was that clients found ways to use mutual support in meeting their social, recreational and daily living needs and in supporting community members who were in crisis.
At Colorado Recovery we have developed a similar model that harnesses the benefits of mutual support. Our Transitional Living program is an independent, communal living situation in five three-bedroom town-homes in north Boulder for clients who are transitioning from acute residential care to independent living. Four of the homes are clustered in the same block of town-houses and a fifth is a ten-minute walk away. A community organizer works alongside residents during the day and evenings helping to create communal cooking, dining and recreational opportunities and to foster mutual support. Even after moving into their independent living situations in the community, clients appreciate the opportunity to return to the Transitional Living program to attend dinners and recreational events and to spend time with friends.