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O'Malley: For neighbors of proposed housing for mentally ill, some good questions to ask

Julia O'Malley
Erik Hill

In January, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority will decide whether to fund a project that would turn the Long House Alaskan Hotel on Spenard into a large housing complex for people with severe mental illness, many who previously lived on the street.

The neighbors are not thrilled about this idea. I can't blame them. They don't have any real information about what this project, the largest of its kind in Anchorage, would look like. And, like a lot of people who don't have experience with the mentally ill, they're scared of what living near something like this might be like.

But they should reserve their judgement. If it's done well, there's good evidence a project like this won't cause problems for neighbors and will do some good in a city where homeless people keep turning up dead outside. How to do it well? I'll get to that. First, some background.

The Long House project, which would be managed by Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, is the type of housing project recommended in the city's homeless plan. It would be similar to Karluk Manor, which provides housing to street alcoholics in a converted hotel in Fairview. The idea is that putting homeless people with mental illness in housing gives them the stability they need to manage their illness. When their illness is managed, they stay out of shelters, hospital emergency rooms and jails. This is better for them and it saves the public money. It's a more permanent solution to our homeless problems than emergency shelters like Brother Francis.

Anchorage Community Mental Health Services manages a number of individual housing-first type units for mentally ill clients throughout the city, but the city doesn't have enough of the type of rental housing it needs. With as many as 48 units in one building, the Long House project would be different than anything they're doing now. ACMHS and the Trust Authority say it's too soon to start talking about the specifics of their project with the neighborhood. That approach might be a mistake. Already, Turnagain Community Council has passed a resolution against it.

I talked to Bill Hobson, the director of Downtown Emergency Service Center, a Seattle organization that operates 10 similar housing complexes for the mentally ill, and has a reputation for doing a good job. Close to 85 percent of residents stay housed for at least two years in DESC housing.

I asked Hobson what it takes to make a facility work. His answers gave me a good idea about what kind of questions residents of Turnagain or Spenard should be asking if the Long House project moves forward. Here are some of them:

• Who will live there?

In Seattle, most of the occupants of the DESC complexes are coming out of homelessness. In Anchorage, the complexes will likely serve a similar population -- people with mental illness who have the potential to function independently. DESC evaluates each resident individually and does provide housing for some people with previous convictions for some sex offenses, Hobson said. According to Nancy Burke, who is working on the project with the Trust Authority, the Long House complex will not provide housing for sex offenders. (It's worth asking, though, what should be done with mentally ill sex offenders who live on the street? Nobody wants them to live next door, but wouldn't you rather have them treating their mental illness and living in an apartment than untreated, living in a tent in a city park?)

• How will residents be supervised?

DESC projects need good staffing, Hobson said. A 75-unit complex, staffed around the clock, would need an average of 19 staff members, he said. That would include on-site caseworkers. The annual cost to run a building that big is about $1 million a year. Seventy-five percent of that is staffing. Burke said that the Long House project would have 24-hour staffing, but the specifics aren't available yet. Adequate supervision and support staffing is key.

• How will ACMHS make sure the residents are good neighbors?

The Seattle program includes a "good neighbor" agreement as part of its rental contract with residents. It prohibits loitering or other anti-social behavior in the neighborhood. Violating it can mean residents lose their apartments. Their complex managers participate in neighborhood events and attend community meetings.

• What happens if something goes wrong?

With DESC properties, all the neighbors get a 24-hour phone number to report suspected problems with residents. Staff members are trained to stay involved with any neighborhood situation, even one that doesn't involve residents, until it is resolved.

I asked Hobson how communities reacted when they heard that his organization would be building housing. He said people were always concerned, and there were lots of meetings. His staff did its best to address all the neighborhood concerns with concrete answers, he said. After housing projects opened, they tended to settle into the neighborhood without much trouble. In one case, a local business organization started out as the project's main opponent, and then, in the end, the organization moved into the commercial rental space in the same building as the housing complex, he said. Now that there are 10 of the complexes, he has a track record that also helps ease concerns. An eleventh will open soon.

The key is to "be absolutely truthful and forthright about what we're doing," he said.

If the Long House project moves forward, which it looks like it might, it should follow DESC's example. Our city could really use some of DESC's results.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at

Did you read Julia O'Malley's column about the Anchorage family who found a lost sister after a random Google-search? Want to know what happened next? Listen to Alaska News Nightly on KSKA 91.1 FM tonight and Friday to hear the radio version. The complete half-hour radio story will also play at 6 pm Saturday, Dec. 29th, repeating at 7:30 pm Sunday Dec. 30.