OR: Legislators Urged to Use Mental Health Funds for Supportive Housing

Pam Martin, director of Addictions and Mental Health Division, Oregon Health Authority

Pam Martin, director of Addictions and Mental Health Division, Oregon Health Authority

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature added around $40 million to the state’s community mental health programs—an acknowledgment by lawmakers that the quality and efficiency of those programs have been lacking.

During the special session in September, legislators instructed the state’s Addictions and Mental Health Division to reports recommendations this month regarding how to spend $10 million of those funds.

At a hearing of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means human services subcommittee earlier this week, the division’s director, Pam Martin, recommended using $4.2 million for rent subsidies and about $5.8 million to construct new housing for people with serious and persistent mental illness.

The recommendation was developed with Oregon’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter. Together, the AMH division and NAMI worked with stakeholders to propose a “housing incentive fund” to construct mixed-used apartment buildings, with a fixed proportion of units reserved for people with mental illness, along with appropriate services.

Under the proposal, the state would pay 20 percent of construction costs, and the rest would come from a funding package from public and private partners, said Chris Bouneff, executive director of Oregon’s NAMI chapter.

“It’s a mechanism where the state could invest in new housing construction without paying the entire tab,” Bouneff said.

Kevin McChesney, executive director of the Oregon Residential Provider Association, said his organization “hear[s] from providers all the time about the need for additional housing.”  The proposal offers “a unique opportunity to leverage public dollars with private investment funds,” he said. “There are quite a few [for-profit] and non-profit [organizations] who are willing to participate.”

Oregon’s dearth of affordable housing for low-income communities is well documented. A 2010 study by Acumentra Health found that 60 percent of patients receiving mental health care could receive services in less restrictive settings, such as supportive or independent housing.

According to a report released by the Department of Justice in January, the state spends only 3.3 percent of its budget for mental health programs on supportive housing, and 7 percent on secure residential treatment facilities.

McChesney told lawmakers that the fund could cause a sea change in how services are delivered throughout the state. “The needs are going to vary depending on the areas of the state,” he said. “We can get people services where they live, rather than moving them to services.”

Despite a sense of urgency among lawmakers to reform and bolster Oregon’s mental health programs, committee members said they need more information before releasing the funds.

“It’s not clear we have a specific list of projects,” said Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, the subcommittee’s co-chairperson. “It’s pretty amorphous.”

Legislators instructed the AMH division to work with advocates to create a specific list of proposals and memorandums of understanding for various projects, which will be due during the legislature’s interim session next September.