Trudy Harsh stands in the doorway of one of the group homes she helped start in Fairfax. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times)

Having faced the struggles of providing services for a mentally ill adult child, Centreville real estate agent Trudy Harsh founded the Brain Foundation, a nonprofit group helping to reduce homelessness among the mentally ill in Fairfax County.

In the decade since the foundation began work in 2003, Harsh has opened her heart and seven houses to this adult population. The foundation has endured despite the housing crisis, financial crisis and years of government funding cutbacks to social programs.

Those who know Harsh best say she primarily is driven by an effort to address the needs of those underrepresented and often voiceless in Fairfax County. “She is the Mother Teresa for housing of those who are mentally impaired” in Fairfax City and county, said Jack Censer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University.

Censer serves on the Brain Foundation’s board of directors, which includes former delegate Chuck Caputo (D).

Censer said Harsh’s drive to help the mentally ill is an example of “what informed, intelligent, sophisticated, hardworking individuals can do to link together a high level of talent with public and private funding to help disadvantaged individuals and their families with services.”

Harsh’s efforts are driven by her story of struggling to provide services for her daughter Laura once she became ineligible for public services. “She’s the one who opened my eyes,”said Harsh, 70. “When she was 8, we found out she had a brain tumor.”

Laura underwent surgery the next year. Without the surgery, doctors told Harsh, her daughter could die. But the results of the surgery left Laura with a different, more hostile personality.

“She was really just a caricature of herself,” Harsh said. “Personality-wise, she was never herself after that.”

Laura developed Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes those afflicted to stop physically developing and have an ever-present hunger that can result in obesity.

“We had to lock her in her room because she would go out at night” looking for food, Harsh said. “When she got to age 15, she got to be so difficult.”

By age 21, Laura was ineligible for state-provided services. The Harsh family tried placing her in a group center and letting her live alone, but those options failed.

“Living alone was not good for her because she would just eat. And she developed diabetes and had more and more medical issues. She was in the hospital more and more,” Harsh said.

Laura moved to Minnesota to live at the Laura Baker Service Association facility, which provides care and services for mentally ill adults. She died in 2006 at 38, about the same time the Brain Foundation’s efforts were beginning to gain ground. “I couldn’t really solve her problems. But this was something I could do,” Harsh said. “It’s given me such a reward. It’s become more successful than I ever dreamed. We really did take a risk hoping this would work out.”

The seven townhouses are known as Laura’s Houses. Three are in Fairfax City, two in Annandale and one each in Reston and Fair Lakes.

“Following my daughter and trying to get services for her . . . just seeing the need, I always thought the county should provide houses. But they didn’t want the mortgages,” Harsh said. “Right now we have to subsidize the rents of our tenants. They pay about a third” of the rent.

Tenant income is estimated at $698 a month, according to the county.

Each townhouse has four bedrooms with four tenants. All are within walking distance of public transportation and grocery stores. Furnishings are provided through donations, much of which comes from churches.

The first home was bought in Fairfax City in 2006 for $417,000.

“The housing crisis [which hit in summer 2007] really helped us because the next two [houses] were $325,000 and they were foreclosures,” Harsh said. “That really lessened our expenses.”

The goal is to increase the number of houses to 10, said Harsh, who is planning for the day a successor takes over.

“We’d be nowhere without her,” said Ted Moriak of Centreville, a foundation board member. “She’s a real entrepreneur. She was the one who brought in lawyer friends to get the nonprofits incorporated. . . . She got me to come in. I’m a retired economist-program and budget analyst [for the U.S. Department of Agriculture]. . . . She attracts highly talented people.”

Community and board members attribute the Brain Foundation’s success to Harsh’s efforts to capitalize on public and private donations and partnerships.

“In many respects, she’s sort of single-handedly taken the bull by the horns. And she’s been able to convince people this is what they need to be focused on,” said Jeannie Cummins Eisenhour, investment and development manager for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. “She’s done an excellent job at leveraging public and private donations, and that’s what really sets this nonprofit apart.”

Eisenhour said there are other area nonprofits with a similar goal of providing group homes, which struggle because they all rely on the same pot of public funding.