An Uncertain Future

For Supportive Housing

I'm a resident of Community Apartments in Triangle, a 20-unit complex for residents of Prince William County who have major psychiatric disorders. My diagnosis is bipolar disorder, more commonly known as manic depression.

Community Apartments is a collaborative effort involving Prince William County, Amurcon Realty, Action in Community Through Service (ACTS) and Good Shepard Lutheran Church.

Depending on whose perspective you take, Community Apartments constitutes "supportive housing" or "independent living." Although the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, there are several gray areas.

Having lived at Community Apartments for almost 10 years, I can say the program is supportive housing with some level of independence but with residents still requiring assistance from on-site staff. It is not full independent living.

The vast majority of residents are not employed. A requirement of the facility is that residents have a serious psychiatric disorder and take their medication. Out of 20 residents, only five have their own vehicle. Some residents have difficulty taking their medication and must be monitored by staff. Several residents participate in either the Community Services Board's horticultural program or attend Prince William County Vocational Services Clubhouse.

Most receive supplemental security income and/or Social Security disability income. That averages out to about $535 a month. Obviously they couldn't live at Community Apartments unless the housing was subsidized.

Over the years, residents have generally been treated excellently by Community Apartments Borrowers Corp. Amurcon Realty has made frequent apartment inspections and has taken into consideration the aesthetic and leisure features that make Community Apartments so unique. There are picnic tables, a gravel walking path around the building, a patio and wonderful landscaping.

Recently, residents were informed they had to attend a meeting where the new Community Apartments director would address some changes in the residential program. The one thing that was stressed was that Community Apartments was "independent living" and that residents would be expected to do more for themselves.

I asked the new director what changes would occur. She said, "We don't know yet. We're still evaluating that." I asked her if this was a prelude to privatization, and she looked at me and said, "You know, I asked that very same question myself." One of the points she raised was a shortage of staff. I responded, "I've lived here almost 10 years and there has never been a problem hiring staff." Her response was they were advertising and it's hard to find qualified applicants.

When residents first moved into Community Apartments, they were told this was "permanent housing." But a new therapist insisted Community Apartments was "transient housing" designed for residents who could move on to more independent living. That leaves those living in supportive housing in a kind of "legal limbo," and I would encourage legislators to come up with some kind of general and appropriate definition of "supportive housing."

As an advocate for the mentally ill, I've seen clubhouses across the nation closed down, mental hospitals closed, emergency rooms turn into psychiatric wards, county human services privatized (such as the debacle in Prince George's County), more mentally ill end up homeless and in jail. I've seen the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill turn into nothing more than a representative of the pharmaceutical industry.

Is Prince William's Community Services Board getting ready to break to market forces? Will Community Apartments be privatized? If so, transparency is essential. Residents and their families need to be told if such a privatization plan for Community Apartments is being considered or already decided and what the effects will be.

Michael Ragland