MONTCLAIR, NJ — The Mental Health Association of Essex County, headquartered in Montclair, has been awarded a grant of more than half a million dollars by the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services to provide outreach services to adults diagnosed as mentally ill who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless. The programming, Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, or PATH, is scheduled to begin providing services throughout Essex County in October.
“This award represents the single largest program expansion in more than 10 years for our association,” MHAEC Executive Director Bob Davison said in a recent phone interview. “We expect that, when we are fully up and running, we will be able to provide outreach and ultimately actual services like housing, medication and mental, as well as physical, health treatment to more than 500 homeless individuals throughout Essex County.
“These are some of our community’s most vulnerable citizens who currently are left with train stations, bus terminals, community parks and wooded areas, under bridges and in emergency shelters as the only places they can call their home,” Davison continued.
According to the 2016 Point-In-Time Count, a single day count completed Jan. 26, 2016, and published by Monarch Housing Associates, a total of 1,349 households, including 1,779 persons, were experiencing homelessness in Essex County. In the report, a household is defined as a group of people who shared the same sleeping arrangements the night of the count and would choose to live together if able to attain permanent housing. The report also found that a total of 94 households were identified as chronically homeless, and 414 households that included 443 persons were unsheltered on the night of the count.
The severity of homelessness may not be news in Essex County, but the numbers of undomiciled persons also battling a mental health or substance abuse disorder make this a particularly urgent issue that needs to be addressed, according to Davison.
The high percentage of those without permanent shelter who also suffer from a behavioral health diagnoses is the reason the MHAEC is eager to bring new resources to the communities.
“We’re interested in being a PATH provider because homelessness — particularly homelessness among people with severe mental illness — is a severe issue in Essex County, the state of New Jersey and the entire country,” Davison said. “Every time someone is homeless with mental illness, it’s a failure of the mental health system and our society to provide for our most vulnerable citizens.”
Monarch Housing Associates Point-In-Time report for 2016 shows that, of the 39 percent of homeless persons who reported having some type of disability, 47.7 percent of those people were adults age 18 or older. The two most prevalent issues were identified as a mental health disability, by 334 people, or a substance abuse disorder, by 327 people.
Other populations identified as being a significant percentage of the homeless demographic in Essex County include victims of domestic violence, veterans, and those who had lost income or benefits such as Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and General Assistance.
Davison explained that one of the key factors in receiving the grant is that MHAEC understands many homeless persons may be wary of staff and fearful of rehospitalization or being controlled in other ways.
“Because of this, our PATH staff will proceed slowly with engagement to build trust by first addressing basic needs identified by the each individual.
“As trust develops, PATH staff will gradually address physical and behavioral health needs following the lead of the individual,” Davison said. “We have been working with individuals with behavioral health needs for over 60 years, and in the last 10 years we developed a supportive housing program. There are currently 140 individuals in the program, half of which were formerly homeless, so we certainly have the experience and the capacity to do this work.”
Davison said that because PATH programming is designed to be focused on the individual person, that is precisely what his organization plans to do in administering its resources.
“Obviously this is a community-based program, so first and foremost we need to be in the community. We’re going to set up an office somewhere in the middle of Essex County and from there we are going to outreach the community and go where the homeless currently are,” he said. “We are not going to wait for Mohammed to come to the mountain; we are going to bring the mountain to Mohammed.
“We are hiring a director to oversee the grant, as well as seven additional staff, homeless case managers and outreach specialists, that are specially trained and we are going to go out and meet the homeless people where they are,” he continued. ”We are not going to be able to alleviate homelessness in Essex County but we are certainly going to make a difference.”
There are currently two other Essex County agencies listed as PATH providers, according to the state website: Project Live, based in Newark, and East Orange General Hospital in East Orange.
Davison said he expects to work closely with other area PATH providers to make sure that they are serving all those in need efficiently and effectively.
“My understanding is that Project Live is Newark only and we have the rest of the county,” he said. “They are an excellent program and they are good people and we look forward to working with them. There is plenty of work to be done and we anticipate a very positive relationship.”
Although the MHAEC has the passion and the expertise to meet the task at hand, they are well aware that there will be some hurdles to overcome.
“One of the biggest challenges working with chronically homeless persons who are mentally ill is that their mental illness is not treated. Often you are working with a population that is wary of mental illness and in denial about their condition and it takes time to build trust,” Davison explained. “There are also the more mundane things like obtaining a valid ID, or getting a birth certificate. Recreating their trail of ID is difficult, but if you can get someone permanently housed, then numbers show that they are much more likely to follow up on treatment.”
PATH administered through the MHAEC will include services such as individual case management; social, emotional and environmental support; occupational and vocational training; community mental health treatment for severe and persistent mental illness; alcohol and substance abuse counseling; and referrals for physical health treatment.
“Our homeless are a very fragile population who need a comprehensive network of support administered by compassionate, skilled professionals in a nonjudgmental way that guides them along each of their unique paths to wellness and recovery.
“We at the Mental Health Association of Essex County appreciate the trust that the division has shown in our ability to deliver results with the PATH program through the awarding of this grant, and we look forward to successfully working with our community’s homeless population,” Davison said in a recent press release.
Located at 33 South Fullerton Ave. in Montclair, the Mental Health Association of Essex County operates Prospect House, a rehabilitation center for individuals with mental illness; Integrated Case Management Services for those re-entering the community from state or county hospitals; Supported Employment Services, which helps those with a history of mental illness to obtain and retain productive employment in the community; and the Center for Low Cost Psychotherapy, which provides affordable psychiatric services for low-income individuals and families. Through its Family Resource Center, the agency also conducts a wide-variety of family support services as well as prevention and intervention, educational seminars and mental wellness programs.
In addition, the agency provides housing opportunities for individuals with mental illnesses returning to the community through its Supported Living and a variety of jail diversion and law enforcement training programs through its Collaborative Justice Services program. Recently, the agency also launched its Assisted Outpatient Treatment Services program, which provides court-ordered mental health treatment, intensive case management and assistance to a select group of mental health consumers who have been resistant to and have had difficulty engaging in outpatient treatment.