At home with mental illness: Working their way out of homelessness
At St. Patrick Center, Michelle Lovelace is making cookies, boosting her resume and working toward her own home --- all at the same time. A former restaurant cook, Lovelace is in treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and living in St. Louis' Shalom House. She's excited to add baking to her job skills.
"This is good experience for me right here," Lovelace said. "I've made ribs, turkey legs, chicken, greens and beans before, but never this -- it's totally different."
Getting and keeping a job are two of the most important factors in overcoming homelessness. But at a time when gainful employment is difficult for even the most marketable job-seekers, it's infinitely more challenging for those with mental illness.
In 2008, only 13 percent of the adults receiving comprehensive psychiatric services from the Missouri Department of Mental Health had jobs. Seventy percent wanted to work.
A Personal Approach
Individual Placement and Support is one of several new programs to be instituted through a $3.6 million federal grant, known locally as the St. Louis Partnership for Mental Health and Housing Transformation.
The brainchild of Dartmouth University researchers, Individual Placement and Support differs from traditional vocational rehabilitation programs in that clients don't participate in one-size-fits-all training before they look for a job.
Instead, employment specialists personally assist them along the way, according to IPS co-founder Deborah Becker, who will train St. Louis practitioners next year.
Already in use at St. Louis' Community Alternatives, the program will be expanded there and added to local programs at Places for People, St. Patrick Center and Queen of Peace, which share the grant.
"The goal of an employment specialist is to look at who this person is, what they say they want to do and map that onto a real job in the community," Becker said. "A specialist gets to know employers to know how to make good job matches for the employer and the consumer looking for work."
Working Doesn't Always Make Sense
An issue for many job-seekers with mental illness is health insurance. If they accept a low-paying position, they may make too much to continue receiving Medicaid or other benefits, but not enough to afford private insurance or even the expense of company-backed plans.
Jerry Ellis, who's being treated for bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, is among those worried about losing benefits. Sober and off crack cocaine for a year, the 48-year-old Navy veteran who also qualifies for Social Security is thinking about going to college to get a job that will make it worth what he'll lose.
"I make as much now as a minimum wage job and I'd lose my insurance," Ellis said. "If I go to school and get a degree, I can get a good job, more money and give up my disability payments."
Cooking Up Solutions
Dartmouth's program for supported employment is now in place in 120 sites in 11 states. Here in St. Louis, St. Patrick Center has its own unique jobs program that's also poised to become a national model.
St. Patrick's two-year-old Businesses, Employment, Growth, Income, Neighborhood New Venture Center (BNVC) is a business incubator with a twist: It has a conscience.
The only faith-based incubator in the country, the center nurtures 22 start-up, early-stage and non-profit companies, including a marketing firm, a video production company and a roofing business. In exchange for below-market rental space and other support, these ventures train and employ St. Patrick's clients.
"Their businesses have a double bottom line," said BNVC director Jan DeYoung. "Not only do they need to be profitable and sustainable in a strict business sense, they are also looking at a social objective."
Earlier this month, the center debuted a 2,200 square-foot commercially licensed culinary center. Michelle Lovelace is one of dozens of St. Patrick clients employed there. She's working with Hollyberry Baking Co. to create its holiday gift baskets.
Lovelace's position is a 40-hour-a-week job that pays $9 an hour and lasts throughout the holiday season. But its benefits will likely expand way beyond the three-month period, according to Hollyberry founder Holly Cunningham. One of last year's clients secured a better position in his job outside the incubator.
"It enabled one guy to get a promotion to pastries at Bistro," Cunningham said. "And another of the clients from last year did so well that he ended up being the lead in our shift here."
Lovelace is hoping that she'll eventually have the same luck. Right now, though, she's savoring the "special, important" feeling she gets from the family-like atmosphere at Hollyberry and the business center, and the satisfaction she gained from finishing her employment skills class.
"When I graduated from the class, I was so proud of myself," Lovelace said. "I'm 37 years old and I've never seen anything with my name on it that says 'completed.'"
Another Hollyberry employee and St. Patrick client, Eric Burse, 55, also takes pleasure in his baking and gift-basket assembling job. But his aspirations lie elsewhere.
A former Boeing quality-control inspector, Burse lived on the streets for eight months last year, using alcohol to try and treat his depression and anxiety. Now he's working to finish an information-technology program through St. Louis Community College and enjoying making a little money while engaged in two of his favorite avocations: cooking and socializing.
"I love working with food," Burse said. "Here, it's all about camaraderie, culinary -- and cash."
Nancy Fowler Larson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on issues related to health and mental health. To reach her, contact Beacon health editor Sally J. Altman.