Ballard facility offers comfort, independence for mentally ill
Seattle Times staff reporter
John Fuller worried, even worried about his worrying.
Nancy Greffin thought she was being stalked.
Sharon Johnson believed she was wanted by al-Qaida.
And Joan White swore she was so famous, people on television talked about her.
They're not related. And they didn't choose each other as roommates. But the five who live at a century-old Ballard home were brought together by depression, schizoaffective and bipolar disorders.
They don't always like each other, sometimes squabbling about toilet paper and petty misunderstandings. But with one another's support and within the walls of the Plymouth Agape House — a two-story, eggshell-colored house on a residential street — they are healing.
"The mentally ill deserve to have a home life just like anyone deserves a home life," said Bill Stephenson, the housing program manager for Community Psychiatric Clinic, which oversees the Ballard home. "Mental illness doesn't mean that people should be shut out of the world."
Decreases by the state Legislature in social-service funding and an industry effort to move away from mental institutions means cluster houses — private residences for two to five people — are more important than ever, said Jean Robertson, assistant director of King County's Mental Health, Chemical Abuse & Dependency Services Division.
"There will always be a need for a facility-based system. But if we can reduce our dependence on facility-based care to permanent housing, that's going to help people in their recovery to live a more normal lifestyle," she said.
Cluster homes are one rung along the ladder of recovery that typically includes institutional treatment, 24-hour care in a licensed boarding home and independent living. Dozens of cluster homes are located in Seattle and the Puget Sound region. Community Psychiatric Clinic, a Seattle nonprofit organization that serves the mentally ill, oversees 23 of them, dropping in on residents once a week. Besides taking medication and getting treatment, residents are left to fix their own meals and live their own lives.
The Plymouth Agape House opened in July through the efforts of CPC and Plymouth House of Healing, a Plymouth Congregational Church program that runs a Beacon Hill home for four people at a time discharged from Harborview Medical Center's inpatient mental-health unit.
The group bought the house from Agape Outreach, a Christian-based organization serving mentally-ill women, with a $130,000 loan from the church. More than 70 volunteers painted, plumbed, repaired, gardened and donated furniture and CPC referred patients and runs the day-to-day operations.
"To buy a house on the open market today, we just couldn't afford it," said Nancy Smith, a board member of the Plymouth House of Healing. "This was a great opportunity."
Keeping up with demand
Partnerships are vital for cluster houses to work. CPC owns seven of the homes it runs and the others are owned by churches, individuals and agencies.
"You just can't do it on your own anymore. It's just not feasible," said Stephenson. "The major issue is we don't have enough of them."
Marcia Landon, a CPC case manager, comes to Ballard for a one-hour house meeting every Wednesday. She chats with the residents, asks where they went and what they ate, and buys household items like air freshener or light bulbs. And she collects rent ranging from $50-$200, based on the residents' incomes. The remainder of the fair-market rent is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing.
The residents generally stick to themselves, some going to church or visiting friends in other cluster houses. Besides the mugs ringed with dried coffee and the Folgers coffee can filled with cigarette butts on the porch, not much differentiates their house from others on the block.
"It's important for people who want to redevelop themselves and integrate into society to live in society," said Liz Bowerman, who lives two doors away. "People should be allowed to live."
A life on fast-forward
Karen Cain, 44, knows foster homes, couches, shelters and half-way houses. Those have been home her entire life.
Her mother was schizophrenic and couldn't handle raising children, so Cain entered the welfare system at age 4. She bounced around from place to place and city to city. She was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at 26.
"I've always been really sad, not really knowing my mother and father," she said in her quiet way.
She once checked herself into a hospital because she was suicidal. "I wanted to live, I just felt out of place all of the time," she recalled. "I felt different. Isolated. Things like that."
Cain had her own apartment for five years, but she wasn't getting the shots she needs to regulate her disorder. She self-medicated with alcohol.
She ended up in a 24-hour care facility. And in September, she moved into the Plymouth Agape House.
"There are no counselors. You take your own meds. You cook for yourself. You don't answer to anybody but yourself," she said. "You just got your independence, I guess. You have your freedom."
Cain likes that she has someone to talk to when she feels like it. Or she can just listen to music in her room. She likes visiting her friends at a mental facility or shopping and eating pizza at Northgate Mall. And she likes that she has a place to call home.
"It's better than a shelter. It's better than a halfway house. It's unique," she said. "I feel like I've found a place to live."
Worrying about worrying
John Fuller, 25, is an avid crossword puzzler. He spends hours with his latch hook. He is a master of video games. And he does it all with his right hand.
Three years ago, Fuller suffered a stroke, most likely a result of high blood pressure and sporadic seizures combined with two packs of cigarettes a day. He lost movement in his left hand and the toes of his left foot. And he got sad; sad like how you feel after a relative has died, he said.
"I was worrying a lot. Worrying about anything and everything," he said with his slight lisp. "I worried about not being able to do the things I couldn't."
Fuller transferred between a long list of schools. He was angry. He fought with his mother. He lived in a children's home for a stint. He quit school. And he spent five days in the King County Jail, but the charge was dropped.
He had no where to go. And he was depressed.
After living in transitional housing for three months, Fuller moved into the Ballard house in July.
He spends a lot of time by himself, just the way he likes it. His GED certificate hangs on the wall of his bedroom.
"Living with others takes a little while to get used to," he said. "But I get my own space — my own bathroom, my own bedroom."
A fear of being followed
Nancy Greffin, 60, is proud of her two daughters. And she loves to talk about her three grandchildren. But when it comes to her depression, her soft voice gets even more timid.
Greffin has struggled with mental illness since 1988. There have been bouts of paranoia and fear. And she worried she was being stalked.
Since 1995, she has lived in various cluster houses, including the Plymouth Agape House when it was just the Agape House. Although she spent two years in her own apartment, the loneliness was overwhelming and she returned to supportive living.
Greffin's favorite part of living at the Plymouth Agape House is the people within it. She loves to hear her next-room neighbor sing pop songs. And she loves that she can see a framed photograph of her grandchildren on her dresser.
She goes to church every day and likes to read the Bible or books. And on good days, she plays the flute.
"It's a good feeling to have a home," she said.
Bouts of confusion
Sharon Johnson, 67, never thought she would be homeless. She ran a day care for 20 years. And while nurturing the children of others, she raised four sons and a daughter of her own.
In 1991, Johnson underwent back surgery and was forced to close the day care. Soon she found herself living in low-income housing.
Then she started babbling. And she would fly into tears or rage for no apparent reason.
"My family noticed it more than I did," she said.
She thought it might have been the medication she was taking for back pain. But a doctor diagnosed bipolar disorder two years ago.
Johnson's memory skips over her periods of euphoria and manic depression. She recalls three hospital stays, the most recent because a son thought she was suicidal. And she thought Al-Qaida was out to get her.
"I don't remember. It was very confusing," she said.
In July, after a six-week hospital stay she considers the scariest time of her life, she found the Plymouth Agape House.
"It took a little getting used to, living with four people I never knew before," she said. "I like the house a lot. It's a very comfortable house. I have privacy. I have my own room. ... I like the idea that I have a home."
Johnson draws with pastels, she cooks and she reads. And sometimes, she visits one of her sons in Sequim.
"I've never been homeless in my life," she said. "I never thought this would happen to me. I am very grateful for this house."
She thought she was a star
Joan White, 31, wanted to teach elementary school. But she was engulfed by bipolar disorder.
Her senior year of high school, everything sped up. She noticed people talking faster, moving faster. And she noticed an odd phenomenon on television.
"I thought I was famous," she said. "People on TV were talking about me."
Living with parents worried about her bipolar disorder, the then 21-year-old White decided she needed her independence and ran away. But realizing what the streets of Portland meant, she walked into a bar, yelled out that she was having a seizure and threw herself off a bar stool.
"I didn't want to become a prostitute, definitely," she said. "It's pretty easy to fake a seizure."
While enrolled in a program for aspiring teachers, she stopped taking her pills, just to see what would happen.
At first she sort of liked the manic way she felt. It was like being high on drugs, she thought. But the mania intensified into paranoia and she returned to a hospital for a two-month stay.
She ended up in transitional housing and then found the home in Ballard.
Now she watches Animal Planet, imagines she's Bono when singing U2 songs and eats fish and chips four times a week. She also has a list of projects, like that guitar she wants to teach herself to play or those crocheting books she hopes to get to.
And she writes stories and letters to her friends. "I feel funny about calling myself homeless when I live in this beautiful house," she said.
The buttery smell of turkey wafted throughout the house. Johnson watched the clock, remembering to baste periodically. White rolled the rolls. And Greffin set the table with paper plates, each displaying a bright turkey.
It was their first Thanksgiving dinner together. And like any family, there were the irritations and annoyances. Cain was absent from the chore of cooking. Johnson barked orders. And White couldn't find that special plate.
"Could you help me please? I can't seem to find it," she wailed to Johnson.
But those interactions are vital to the healing process, said their case manager.
"What happens with mental illness is it starts stunting people. ... They withdraw and isolate themselves," said Landon. "Being around other people, you start to tell your story and there's no stigma against them. ... Everybody here has a mental illness so they accept each other for who they are."
The cluster-home setting allows the residents independence but with someone who will gently encourage them to buy food instead of cigarettes, attend weekly meetings, perform household chores. "It's the little things," said Landon. "Something you and I take for granted, for them it's difficult."
None of the residents works and they all depend on disability payments, but the hope is that they'll once again be able to function if not fully, then at least better than they are.
"The women here help me deal," said White. "They're pretty supportive when I tell them my problems and they don't tell me to shut up."
Messages for Gina Kim: 206-464-3330 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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