Fifteen years ago, a small group of consumers and administrators with extensive experience in the mental health system came together to discuss an exciting opportunity. New models for housing for people with disabilities were emerging across the country in response to deinstitutionalization from hospitals and other facilities.
However, a difficult combination of overwhelming need, economic limitations and paternalistic models was producing a narrow array of options for housing in many communities. In the worst cases, rundown buildings shared by too many people offered residents little in the way of privacy and left everyone vulnerable to being stigmatized. Residential programs offered solutions for individuals needing intensive supports, but created a different barrier. When housing is intrinsically linked with required participation in mental health services, an individual making significant progress in their recovery could actually jeopardize their ability to remain in residential housing.
There were also a few pioneering examples of housing models designed by, with and for consumers where desirable, non-service-linked housing options enhanced a person’s strengths and freedom. The group in Maryland had convened to explore launching a housing program that embraced quality, affordability and choice as absolutely necessary to offer a real foundation for long-term mental health recovery and community reintegration. The driving mission would be to create quality, affordable rental housing options so desperately needed by individuals and families with psychiatric disabilities trying to survive on disability benefits and public assistance.
If it were successful, the organization would not only offer a better quality of life for tenants, but would also set a new standard for how mental health consumers could successfully live independently in the community with the same dignity and equality afforded to their neighbors.
As Mike Finkle, Executive Director of On Our Own of Maryland, Inc., remembers, “we brainstormed lots of different names [for the organization], but ‘Main Street Housing’ really captured what we were trying to do: help consumers get from the back wards to Main Street!”