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Building a community: houses for NC people with mental illness

Thava Mahadevan, Director of Operations for UNC’s Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health is excited to show visitors the first project tiny house, a 12 foot x 28 foot one-story house at The Farm on Penny Lane in Chatham County. The 336 square foot house is the pilot house, the first of several where clients with mental illness will be able to live inexpensively in a planned tiny house community for people with mental illnesses just south of Chapel Hill.
Thava Mahadevan, Director of Operations for UNC’s Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health is excited to show visitors the first project tiny house, a 12 foot x 28 foot one-story house at The Farm on Penny Lane in Chatham County. The 336 square foot house is the pilot house, the first of several where clients with mental illness will be able to live inexpensively in a planned tiny house community for people with mental illnesses just south of Chapel Hill. hlynch@newsobserver.com

At the end of a dirt road sits a small, unfinished house that is the centerpiece of Thava Mahadevan’s plan for stable housing and productive work for people with mental illnesses.

Mahadevan founded the Farm at Penny Lane, 40 acres that he hopes to convert into a community of 10 small houses for people living with mental illnesses and on limited incomes.

The homes would be open to clients at the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, where Mahadevan is director of operations, and would be affordable to people living on Supplemental Security Income, federal benefits for people with disabilities.

Housing is a critical need for people with mental illnesses. Members of a task force on mental health and substance abuse convened by Gov. Pat McCrory has made housing one of their top priorities. They say tiny homes, like those planned by Mahadevan, might be part of the answer.

Long-term housing “is the crux of everything,” Mahadevan said.

Ronnie Beale, a Macon County commissioner and a member of task force, called tiny homes for people with mental illnesses “an innovative idea.”

A place to live, a job, and “a buddy” are vital to recovery, Beale said.

Mahadevan hopes the Tiny Home Collaborative can be an example to rural counties in the state and the rest of the country. Eventually, he would like to compile a step-by-step guide on building such communities that others can use.

The lack of affordable housing means that people with severe mental illnesses who rely on federal disability payments have limited options for stable homes. Rent on one-bedroom apartments in nearby Chapel Hill are unaffordable for those living solely on disability.

“It’s very clear there is nothing out there,” Mahadevan said. The tiny homes can be rented for $250 a month, he said.

People with severe mental disorders die prematurely, with lifespans 10 to 25 years shorter than average, according to the World Health Organization. Many die from medical conditions that can be treated.

Mahadevan wants to provide secure housing as a foundation for integrated care, as part of a community attentive to both physical and mental health.

One of his goals is to use the farm for both food and exercise for residents.

“We want to make a self-sufficient place for clients,” he said.

Clients from the UNC community mental health center already work on the land, or help care for puppies living temporarily on the property. The puppies will eventually become assistance dogs for veterans with PTSD.

An Assertive Community Treatment Team, or ACTT team, also has its office on the property. These are teams of doctors, nurses, and others who serve people with severe mental illnesses where they live. Having doctors and nurses nearby, but in the background, will be an asset, Mahadevan said.

The 336-square-foot model house was built with the help of donations and volunteers. It is still up on blocks.

He expects the house will be finished in two months. After that, UNC community mental health clients will take turns living in it for a few days or a week at time and provide feedback to researchers about the experience. That feedback will guide the design of the next five homes. Another group of five will follow, he said.

Before the first round of homes is built, Chatham County must approve a zoning change, the dirt road that leads to the farm must be paved, and of course, money must be raised to build them.

The property is located off U.S. 15-105 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro. Neither town is easy to get to without a car.

Rural living many not be for everybody, said Rebecca Sorensen, a community development consultant who works for the collaborative. But living in a city or town, where people often must rent apartments they can barely afford and are surrounded by people who don’t understand their illnesses, isn’t necessarily better.

The community planners intend to get a bus stop nearby, Sorensen said, so people can get to town each day but return to a supportive community.

“I’ve yet to see a study that says living in the city is better than living in the country,” she said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

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