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Community housing organizations work to address mental health concerns

Thava Mahadevan, director of operations at the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health and clinical instructor in the UNC Department of Psychiatry, stands in front of a sign for Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health in Carrboro, N.C. on Thursday, September 21, 2023.

Community organizations in and around Chapel Hill are working to address the link between mental health and housing insecurity.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21.1 percent of people experiencing homelessness also have a serious mental health condition, compared to 5.5 percent of all U.S. adults.

Paul Marvin, the HomeLink team lead at the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, said thinking of housing as mental health care is the best way to address mental health issues that unhoused people face.

HomeLink, which operates through the center, connects unhoused and housing-insecure people who have mental health issues with services, benefits and housing support.

Marvin said that with a housing-first approach, he and his team are able to help provide housing-insecure individuals with a stable environment before addressing other concerns.

“Housing is not a silver bullet that solves everyone’s problems completely — but being housed gives folks a secure place from which to address other kinds of issues in their life,” he said.

Marvin said everyone on his team has had their own lived experiences with mental health, addiction or homelessness, which allows them to model the recovery process and connect with the people that they work with.

“We want to get people housed and then support them in all the ways they need support so that they can be successful and really pursue the life they want to pursue,” he said. 

Marvin said in his role, he mainly sees conditions like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder present in those who have housing instability, and he said it is important to recognize that mental health issues can look different for every person.

For conditions like PTSD, Marvin said transitioning into stable housing may be difficult because the person had likely built up stress and tension from being unhoused.

"It takes months to get to a place of equilibrium and calm," he said.

Donna Carrington is the executive director of the Community Empowerment Fund — a community organization that aims to close the racial wealth gap through providing financial services including housing assistance in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham.

CEF primarily helps people dealing with housing insecurity find new housing that is affordable to them, she said.

Carrington said because housing insecurity comes with financial insecurity, many housing-insecure individuals cannot afford adequate healthcare, which may affect their mental health.

In CEF's Chapel Hill office, Carrington said the organization has a place where housing providers can come in and easily speak to those in need. 

She said people do not have to go too far to find who they need to meet with at CEF. Carrington said that her team also connects people with a housing helpline as well as the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service to obtain food to help those who may be struggling with housing. 

Thava Mahadevan, the director of operations for the Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, said the department just received its second five-year grant that will allow them to focus on how those who deal with housing insecurity can be helped.

Under the grant, he said his department has been delivering about 100 meals a week to those who do not have housing in Orange, Durham and Wake counties. 

Through a partnership with UNC and other organizations, Mahadevan said a pilot 15-home tiny homes village is being tested out near Pittsboro. 

“Having a safe, affordable, permanent supportive house provides tremendous stability for someone and reduces the stress level that they otherwise face on a day-to-day basis,” Mahadevan said.

Daniele Berman, the director of external relations at Community Home Trust, said the organization, which works on a land trust model, works to ensure that many of the homes it provides are permanently affordable.

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In Chapel Hill, there is an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, which states that if a new property has five or more units, then 15 percent of the units will need to be made affordable to those with low to moderate income levels.

“It’s really important that we are creative in the ways that we create more affordable housing and also further the housing that is already affordable,” Berman said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Community Empowerment Fund offers a housing helpline. The organization connects people to the helpline. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 


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