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Monday, December 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New kind of home will offer a new kind of life for five women

Seattle Times staff reporter

How to help


NAMI Greater Seattle has begun a fundraising campaign to pay for Hofmann House for Women.

Relatives of the late Catherine Hofmann have donated $100,000, the state of Washington has given $85,000, and several two-year loans have been made toward the $603,450 project.

Individuals or groups wishing to help may contact NAMI Greater Seattle at 802 N.W. 70th St., Seattle, WA 98117, 206-783-9264.

When fast action was needed, Aubrey Green didn't hesitate.

Sewage was backing up into her future home. The rainstorm was fierce. Green didn't have a raincoat, but she had her sneakers. She grabbed a shovel and began digging down to the clogged sewer line.

"I had big globs of mud on my pants and I was soaking wet," Green said, recalling that night two Thursdays ago.

It's the kind of thing you do to protect your house — especially when your housing options are limited.

In the next few days, after the sewer line is fixed and a new carpet laid, Green, 21, and two other women with mental illness will move into the modest Ballard house. Two more women, now being selected from a pool of applicants, will join them later.

Hofmann House for Women is a new kind of home for people with mental illness, who more often live with their parents, on the streets or in transitional housing with mental-health care but no roadmap for building independent, self-supporting lives, said Frank Jose, executive director of NAMI Greater Seattle.

NAMI, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has modeled the house after its seven-year-old Hofmann House for Men not far away. Five of the men are working or are in school; a sixth just moved in.

After the women get settled in their house, they will attend a course taught by other mentally ill people to learn how to enhance their "mental wellness." The class will explore the nature of their illnesses and ways to avoid relapsing into debilitating symptoms. The women will continue taking prescribed medications and seeing their caseworkers and psychiatrists at mental-health agencies.

They'll run their own household, working out chores among themselves. Eventually they will be expected to enroll in school, do volunteer work, or get a job. Rent is $220 a month, and the women can stay as long as they want.

Helping remodel

"Sweat equity" is required before moving in. So far, the three women have helped volunteers and contractors fix up the house, add a basement window, demolish the old oil-furnace chimney and remodel the kitchen. They have sanded and painted, and helped lay tile.

"I like being able to know I put the baseboards in my room, I helped put the shelves up. I will pick the curtains. It feels good that I did it, that it's my room," said Rebecca Swem, who has had difficulty keeping jobs because of schizoaffective disorder, an illness in which a mood disorder is combined with paranoid thoughts.

Swem, 26, is ready to move out of the house she shares with three men whose main activities, she says, are eating, sleeping, playing Nintendo and watching movies. She wants to replace her disability checks with paychecks — possibly by working in a store.

She attended Newport High School in Bellevue, but, because of her illness, didn't graduate. As with her housemates, mental illness has also made it hard to keep a job.

When Green moves in to Hofmann House it will be the first time she has lived apart from her family in Fall City. A graduate of Mount Si High School, she creates lifelike portraits and other pencil drawings and hopes to go to college and work as a graphic artist or interior designer.

Green has lived with schizoaffective disorder since she was 12. But the paranoid thoughts that once told her TV personalities were reading her mind have gone away, and her depression is controlled with medication.

Sheri Boger, 42, didn't realize until four years ago that schizophrenia was the reason she had trouble maintaining jobs and relationships. After too many nights when only a homeless shelter or a friend's couch kept her off the streets, she's eager to move into her new home.

Boger doesn't feel ready to make long-term plans about work or school until she completes NAMI's "peer-to-peer" course on coping with mental illness.

"I don't know if it will change me too much, but I'm willing to try," she says, "because I know I'm not perfect."

NAMI founder and longtime director Eleanor Owen, who oversaw creation of Hofmann House for Men, will teach the women how to make curtains for their windows and closets. In the coming months, they will landscape the property and build fences and a shed.

Growth through work

Seed money for the house came from the family of the late Catherine Hofmann, who for years lived on her own with a mental illness, mostly without adequate support.

Hofmann's late mother, Ruth, funded the men's house. Her brother Peter and his wife, Martha, helped pay for a six-bedroom house Plymouth Healing Communities maintains for former Harborview Medical Center psychiatric patients.

Erik Bjodstrup, who is recovering from paranoid schizophrenia and alcohol and drug dependence, said working on a bathroom, shed and fence at Hofmann House for Men was a turning point for him: "That made me start to think I could get going and doing and get a job."

It took the support of his housemates to help Bjodstrup, 46, reach the point where he could run his own light-construction and yard-work business: "We moved in and watched each other grow."

Says Owen: "What they did really in remodeling their home was to remodel their lives."

Now Bjodstrup is helping the Hofmann House women. As a paid worker, he's showing them basic home-repair skills. His housemate Brian Tracy is working as a volunteer.

Thanks to them, the women are starting an important new phase of their lives. "I just want to come home," Boger says of the little house in Ballard. "I'll be so happy to finally say I'm home."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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