CODI Leadership on Mental Health Housing Panel

Mental Health Consumers, Advocates Find Lack of Housing Options


ABSECON — Those suffering from a mental illness can find it very difficult to find housing, putting them at risk of becoming homeless, experts said Monday at a panel hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Atlantic-Cape May chapter.

Thousands of New Jersey residents use mental-health services, but some don’t have anywhere to stay during or after treatment. Experts say the demand is greater than the resources, and those coming out of state psychiatric hospitals often get priority.

“The goal is to make people feel like they are a part of the community after they’ve been separated from it for so long,” said Sarai Southrey, vice president of residential services at Career Opportunity Development Inc. in Egg Harbor City. “But there are serious limitations in the system.”

Attendees on Monday ranged from people with mental illnesses to loved ones caring for family or friends.

Housing programs at Career Opportunity Development, AtlantiCare, Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey in Absecon and Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May counties are designed to help people with mental illnesses live independently, whether in group homes or individual housing.

But housing vouchers distributed by state departments are limited, said Ann Thoresen, senior director of the Atlantic Homeless Alliance and Justice Involved Services at Jewish Family Service in Margate.

Many representatives from the housing services said they have contracts with the state’s Division of Mental Health Services to set aside a significant portion of their housing spots for people coming out of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Winslow Township, Camden County.

“Some people at Ancora have been living there for years, waiting for a place to go” Southrey said. “Occasionally we’ll have openings for other people with mental illness or disability in the community, but not as many as we’d like.”

Ancora made 763 discharges from the hospital in the 2016 fiscal year, according to a state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services report.

Miriam Britt, a licensed clinical social worker at AtlantiCare’s behavioral health services, said she sympathizes with people’s frustrations.

Britt helps run the Program of Assertive Community Treatment, an intense community-based program that uses a multidisciplinary team of behavioral-health professionals.

Yet bed space for the program is limited to specific patient populations. AtlantiCare runs an at-risk housing program aimed at people who may become homeless, which enrolls about 20 people referred by community mental-health providers.

About 20 percent of homeless people suffer from a mental illness or a chronic substance-abuse disorder, according to past reports from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.