Trudy Harsh, the founder of the Brain Foundation, has purchased six homes around Fairfax County which now house 24 people with mental illness. And her business model is spreading. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

For five years now, Centreville’s Trudy Harsh has been a powerful force to combat that problem. A former realtor, she has purchased six townhouses around Fairfax County and placed four people with mental disabilities in each, refusing to wait for committees or governments to act. She has financing lined up for three more houses, meaning she and the group she founded in 2003, the Brain Foundation, will have single-handedly created permanent housing for 36 people, which is more than 20 percent of the entire state’s current need.

And her model has spread to a second Brain Foundation in Florida, operated by two former Northern Virginians, who have bought and filled two more houses in Fairfax and three in the Orlando area. Their goal is 20 houses by 2020.

But Harsh’s Brain Foundation has reached the limits of what it can do, particularly as Harsh moves closer to retirement. Rather than expand, she is hoping that more Brain Foundations will start up, and create their own real estate portfolio. She has truly shown how it can be done.

Trudy Harsh, right, stands with Helen Applebee, left, and Nancy Mastropaolo outside a townhouse in Fairfax City, one of six her Brain Foundation has purchased since 2005. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

“Trudy is tops,” said Wilbur Dove of Vienna, who has run non-profit housing organizations and steered one of them to donate $50,000 to the Brain Foundation in 2006 to help it buy its first house in Fairfax City. Dove knew that the mentally ill population was badly underserved and helped Harsh devise a plan to deal with it

“She’s tops at recruiting great people and getting the job done,” Dove said.

Harsh became involved in the issue through her daughter Laura, who was emotionally stunted as a result of brain surgery at age 8. Laura died in 2006, and each of the Brain Foundation’s homes is called “Laura’s House.”

Harsh joined various boards and committees, including the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which provides services for the mentally disabled. But she felt the government wasn’t moving fast enough to fill the large housing need. She formed the Brain Foundation in 2003 and began raising funds for a house. In 2006, with the help of Dove’s cash infusion, she was able to obtain a $450,000 loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority, and bought a four-bedroom townhouse. She furnished it through donations, and it opened in April 2007.

Pathway Homes, which provides residential care for those with mental illness around Northern Virginia, had a waiting list of potential tenants, and it provides services to those who are selected to live in Laura’s Houses. The tenants pay rent and the foundation raises funds to cover any unpaid expenses.

There are now three Laura’s Houses in Fairfax City, two in Annandale and one in Reston. Harsh is scouting locations for the next three. She wants four-bedroom houses that are close to bus or train lines, since her tenants don’t drive, and within walking distance of a grocery.

I’ve been in a couple of the houses over the years, and they are clean and well organized. Harsh leads the tours, pointing out artwork or furniture she has obtained from various sales or donations, noting the house’s conveniences and amenities.

The foundation has no full-time staff. It’s all volunteer, with Harsh acting as property manager. One of the crucial volunteers has been Ted Moriak, a retired economist and analyst from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has helped find the grants and funding to purchase the houses.

“She’s done a fabulous job,” Moriak said. He pointed out that she was named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian magazine in 2010.

“She’s a model that we are cloning in Florida,” said Ron Wilensky, a former Marriott executive now living in the Orlando area. Wilensky’s brother-in-law, Dave Jeffreys, lived with mental illness for 40 years, but after years in and out of hospitals, he achieved stability when he moved into a home in Northern Virginia, Wilensky said.

Wilensky is a board member of Pathway Homes, and at one meeting several years ago, Harsh “sauntered in and talked about what she was doing. It got us thinking, this is something we could replicate.”

And now the Brain Foundation of Florida is flourishing, raising funds and finding grants the same way Harsh and Moriak did. Their houses are all called “Dave’s House.”

“She’s been very generous with her time,” Wilensky said. “I think she’s been a thought leader, and she’s had the courage and boldness to take on a cause.”

But Harsh feels that nine or 10 houses will be the limit that her all-volunteer group can handle. “We need people to start another Brain Foundation,” she said recently, a few days after hosting a large, entertaining backyard fundraiser at her Centreville home which featured some fine Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley impersonators.

“There are still so many people that need housing that are mentally ill,” she said, “and I want to stop and make sure this one (foundation) is successful,” and perhaps find someone to take over her job as president. She has earned it.

If you’re interested in helping the Brain Foundation, or starting the next Brain Foundation in Northern Virginia, go to their Web site here.