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How public-private collaboration built a home for those with mental illness

Plymouth Healing Communities board member Nancy Smith (left) and Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw cut the ribbon at the new Argonaut House. Credit: Credit: Elizabeth Maher

How did a tiny Seattle nonprofit convince, cajole, nag and inspire almost a dozen public and private organizations, including some very big ones, to join together to build Argonaut House?

The housing project in South Seattle was modest and unique. In 2008 Plymouth Healing Communities (PHC) decided to renovate and expand its eight-unit apartment building for individuals living with mental illness by adding six units and new common areas. All residents would live independently and receive outpatient hospital services. Each could also sign up for one-on-one companionship from a trained volunteer or PHC staffer.

Ironically, the modest size of the project held it back. Even PHC board member Nancy Smith (known in Seattle as a force of nature when it comes to housing people with mental illnesses) couldn’t nail down sufficient funding. She carried the architectural designs, the $1.7 million cost estimate and the history of PHC’s innovative, successful companioning program to all possible funding sources in the region.

The response was the same everywhere, she says: “We’re so glad you’re doing this project! But it’s too small.” 

Could a too-small project convince big-time players to help make it happen? 

Short answer: Yes. But it took six years, and “was like a mouse trying to dance with elephants,” says Gary Southerton, Plymouth Healing Communities' executive director.

The project’s most elephantine partner was the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And HUD’s Section 811 application, a city-phonebook-thick form for requesting federal funds to develop housing for people with disabilities, would never have passed muster without the contributions of other project partners: two local banks, attorneys at Kantor Taylor, consultants at Bellwether Housing, commercial contractor RAFN Company and architect Elizabeth Maher. Also in the mix were Boeing’s Employees Community Fund and the core group PHC started out with: Plymouth Church / United Church of Christ, Harborview Mental Health Center and the Mental Health Chaplaincy.

Good old-fashioned civic benevolence fueled some of the effort. Perceiving the Argonaut’s benefit to the community, The Commerce Bank of Washington stepped up, “at the eleventh hour, three days before closing with HUD,” Southerton says, to establish the escrow account required for holding and administering construction funds. PHC’s bank, one of the nation’s giants, would have charged $10,000 for opening and managing the account — an impossible stretch for the budget, says Southerton. Commerce provided the escrow account for free.

This was no trifling gift. “It’s a cumbersome process for them to oversee the distribution, draw funds and approve, and send the paperwork to our HUD lawyer,” says Southerton. The bank’s generosity reflected its recognition, says Brigitte Folz, Harborview’s director of outpatient psychiatry, that “housing is the necessary foundation for recovery from mental illness, whether that means staying out of the hospital or finding employment.”

Yet it was personal relationships, the heart of this story, that played the biggest part. One vital connection was Smith’s 25 years spearheading big affordable-housing projects constructed by RAFN, a large commercial building company. Their past work together eased the way for her to ask RAFN owners to take on what would be, for a sizeable general contractor, “a teeny-tiny project,” she says. RAFN consented and, after patiently waiting for two years while project funding came in, hewed to its original price even though costs had gone up in the interim.

Also vital was the powerful bond between people at Plymouth Church, Harborview and the Mental Health Chaplaincy. The relationship extends back 14 years, to the founding of Plymouth Healing Communities and the House of Healing, a short-term residence where four homeless people released from inpatient psychiatric treatment can gradually recover their equilibrium. Plymouth Healing Communities has acquired four more small-scale facilities since then, which offer independent permanent housing for people living with mental illness. “We do ‘small’ really well,” says Smith. “We can be very present for our residents as a result.”

Very present indeed. Personal relationships anchor all of the organization's support programs, which are modeled after Craig Rennebohm’s quietly revolutionary Mental Health Chaplaincy. Each resident is offered the opportunity to have the same volunteer companion meet with him or her weekly or biweekly for coffee and casual conversation (or sometimes casual silence), or for a short trip into town. Companions team up to host monthly movie nights and other gatherings at each residence, and to arrange holiday parties with board members and other guests — a barbecue on the Fourth, a December buffet with a decorated tree and gifts. Community-building activities keep residents from feeling isolated in their separate apartments or cut off from "normal" society.

In this way each resident gets to practice being in relationships that are more personal than those with a case manager or clinician. But they’re not as fraught as family relationships or friendships can be, because there’s “less pressure imposed by a sense of duty, and no expectation to give back,” says Simone Seymour, Plymouth Healing Communities' community companion coordinator.

For people whose relationship histories are marked by one broken tie after another — through no fault of their own — it's a blessing when new relationships grow. “Slowly, by taking people at their own pace,” Seymour says.

Robert agrees. As I talk with this thin, stooped, gray-haired tenant from PHC’s Admiral Apartments, he watches the floor and keeps shifting his weight from foot to foot. Interacting with companions and his Admiral neighbors is “the extent of my social life," says Robert. "Otherwise I’m a loner. It’s hard for me to be with people, but I know these people now, and nobody has let me down or vice-versa.”

An ideal starting point for housing of this kind is a faith community's relationship to a civic mission, like Plymouth Church’s 14-year commitment to sheltering and providing companions for the city’s impoverished, isolated mentally ill residents. “Many churches today sit on properties that have the potential for a project similar to the Argonaut,” says Lee Murray, Plymouth Healing Commmunities' board president.

Soaring real estate values have made it extremely expensive to establish housing near public transit and jobs, for people who need it most. But a congregation can repurpose its own properties to do so, and offer companionship, too. “It’s a creative way churches can engage more meaningfully in the community,” Murray says. “And in their struggle to stay alive, churches are learning that the next generation isn’t interested in them if they look the way churches looked in the past."

Ed, 57 (below), can hardly wait to move into his Argonaut apartment on June 1. He lived in Carkeek Park for years, says Southerton, before being hospitalized with clinical depression and anxiety. After his release and his gradual recovery at Plymouth Healing Communities’ House of Healing, Ed's Harborview case manager found him his present home.

It’s better than being homeless, Ed told me. But it’s just a room in a large, noisy building with many residents who don’t feel enough ownership of the communal kitchen and bathrooms to keep them clean.

Ed, a professional baker until a damaged spinal disc and mental illness forced him out of work, looks forward to keeping his own kitchen spotless and baking bread to share. “It’ll be a peaceful way of living at last,” he says.

The successful completion of the Argonaut shows that even during a recession, even without big chunks of change from huge foundations, a patient little group willing to do a lot of footwork can cobble together enough resources to create desperately needed, small-scale supportive housing. It’s a model for how different sectors and individuals can unite to tackle civic problems of any size and build a more equitable, engaged community.

The uniting part is of course indispensable. The teamwork that solves these problems won’t happen if we're just dreaming up the Next Big Thing alone. As in a recent "collective impact" project in Tacoma that pulled families out of poverty and their kids towards academic success, civic improvement requires long-term personal commitments to a collaborative, time-consuming, messy kind of conversation and compromise. This can feel almost un-American in a society that prizes speed, autonomy and entrepreneurial self-reliance.

So call us un-American. Through our Community Idea Lab, Crosscut is promoting civic engagement by spotlighting the ideas and work of people who are trying to address the region's economic and social challenges in creative ways. This story is one example of that kind of creative approach. We hope you'll follow our Community Idea Lab series, and contribute your own insights and ideas as we explore various topics. Maybe start by leaving a comment below about how to mitigate the impact of current housing shortages, exorbitant rents, and inadequate social services.

Crosscut's Community Idea Lab coverage is made possible by the generous support of Social Venture Partner’s Fast Pitch.

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