Opinion: Article on Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare paints a false portrait

By Derald Walker, chief executive officer of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare Inc., in The Portland Tribune, June 7, 2012

READ – Cascadia Housing: not always for healing, Portland Tribune, May 24, 2012

Despite misinformation, independent living is key to survival

Cascadia Housing has long been a proud and important provider of specialty low-income housing for people with serious mental illnesses.

Providing homes to people who have not been successful in housing in the past is a very important part of Cascadia’s mission. We know that housing is a necessary element in people’s recovery and stability. Unfortunately, the May 24 Portland Tribune article, “Cascadia Housing: not always for healing,” goes a long way in misinforming the public and misrepresenting the good work that occurs in Cascadia’s housing services. Worse, the article paints a skewed and inaccurate picture of people with serious mental illness living independently.

On the evening after the story was published, our vice president of housing, our chief medical and operating officer and I visited the three apartment buildings mentioned in the article, and talked with many tenants. Most are very happy and report feeling safe and well-respected.

Some are housed successfully for the first time in their adult lives, and their stories are compelling and enlightening. Several people mentioned their histories of having been homeless until Cascadia gave them a chance.

While noting the challenges of working in publicly funded mental health care, the Tribune article contains numerous inaccuracies and misquotes.

For example:

  • Harriet Court is not reserved for “mentally ill tenants who are transitioning into independent housing.” It is independent housing. Each person at Harriet Court applies, is approved and signs a lease (like any other private citizen in rental housing) and is required to abide by and is protected by all federal Fair Housing and ADA laws.
  • We cannot require people to access mental health services — although many do — and we constantly encourage people to take advantage of any and all support they can.
  • Cascadia manages a range of more than 600 units of housing — including transitional housing for people who are homeless, residential treatment programs, supported housing and approximately 300 units of independent housing. Higher levels of care include on-site treatment services — independent housing does not. All tenants are encouraged to participate in clinic-based services. Most do. Some do not.
  • Our state’s philosophy and our hope is that when individuals achieve this level of independent housing, they are ready to be truly independent. Again, we cannot require treatment. And while independent specialty housing funding does not fund on-site treatment per se, we certainly do our best to attend to the health and safety of our tenants.

Any concerning or illegal behavior at these apartments, as in any apartment, is investigated and dealt with according to Fair Housing law. We actively and constantly work with people to help them maintain housing, including supporting them when they are in danger of eviction.

Our housing is “low barrier” by design. We understand and deal with the challenge that brings because we know the benefits for those we serve. We take pride in providing low-barrier housing. We follow a “Housing First” philosophy — namely that if we provide housing, access to resources and confidence in recovery, people will do their best. There are risks involved in this approach, but we firmly believe people deserve the opportunity to embark on their own journey towards recovery while being safely housed.

  • Cascadia does not “place” sex offenders into independent housing. People apply for leases, are screened and are either accepted or not under the Fair Housing law. Predatory sexual offenders do not qualify for entrance.
  • All of our independent housing common areas are cleaned on a weekly basis and screened monthly for public health concerns. Tenants clean their own apartments, just as anyone who has an apartment or house does. If someone’s apartment is thought to be so cluttered or unclean as to be a health or safety hazard, then very specific measures, beginning with a “24-hour Notice of Intent to Inspect,” if that’s necessary, and then we work with people to try to rectify whatever the problem is in order for them to retain their housing.

At any given time, we are working with at least one tenant (and sometimes several) on some safety or health issue. It’s an ongoing responsibility that Cascadia has assumed as a provider of specialty housing.

  • We are not “stretching funds by relying on property managers to address issues involving mentally ill tenants.” However, contrary to what the article stated, we do hire our property managers and asset managers based on their interest, experience and expertise in working with tenants who have mental illness.
  • Cascadia receives regular compliance audits from Oregon Community Housing, and has not been found out of compliance with any of our management agreements.

The apartments are, as the article said, well-maintained and clean. As one woman at Lafayette Apartments said, “This is a safe place. It is the best place I’ve been.”

During my recent visit, I consistently got a warm reception. All of the tenants we encountered, including all of those featured in the article, were eager to talk with us and openly shared their opinions, experiences and observations.

I am distressed by the Tribune article for many reasons, primarily because of the inaccurate, unkind and stigmatizing picture painted of the people in these apartments. That said, I do believe the article serves a positive purpose in focusing attention on this incredibly valuable resource to our community. Independent housing is a critical part of Cascadia’s extensive system of care for those we serve.