Advocate works to find housing and supervision for community's mentally ill

Mental Health Foster Homes

POLK COUNTY -- Robin Martin has worked with individuals suffering from mental health problems for decades, as a volunteer and as a certified nurse's assistant.

After years helping people battling a range of conditions from mild depression to schizophrenia, Martin said she always felt compelled to do more for her charges -- particularly those without a place to go.

"There are people out there who are mental patients and nobody knows they are," she said. "They usually function well enough on their own, but something happens in their lives that sends them over the edge ... it's more than they can cope with."

Last July, Martin opened the Maplewood Care Home in Independence, an adult-foster care home that serves seniors and mental health clients. The experience has "opened her eyes" to the population around her, she said.

"There are quote-unquote 'normal people' who have a hard time functioning in this world, but can cope better than others," she said. "We want to care for the people who can't."

Polk County's growing population, combined with statewide waiting lists for admittance to hospital facilities, has meant more regional mental health clients lack the stable and supportive environment needed for recovery.

There are two state-licensed, mental health foster homes -- with 10 beds between them -- in Polk County.

Cheryl Zentz, a fiscal and housing coordinator for Polk County Mental Health (PCMH), said her agency is in the process of developing more mental health foster homes, and trying to recruit more providers.

"People with mental health issues are somebody's mother, brother or sister ... and they need hope like everybody else does."

PCMH's Community Support Services program does case management for approximately 100 individuals Zentz refers to as "mental health consumers." Some come after being processed through the county's judicial system or law enforcement agencies, while others are referred by families, friends, or simply check themselves in, said Geoff Heatherington, PCMH director.

"Life is complicated and stressful," Zentz said. "Sometimes people break down because of all the things they have to deal with ... they need people who can provide the support they need to become physically and emotionally healthy again."

Local officials have about 25 "consumers" who require adult foster home supervision. Ten of them reside in homes licensed for mental health care in Dallas and Monmouth. Zentz said the rest have been located to facilities that serve seniors and individuals with developmental disabilities, such as Martin's, or in homes in Marion County.

"They really need to be in homes licensed specifically for mental health," said Linda Dennis, a PCMH supervisor.

It's also important that those homes be local, in order to allow "consumers" easier access to county services and case managers, she said.

Adult foster home providers receive their operating licenses by the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS). They work in conjunction with a person's case manager to map out treatment plans or goals, do record keeping, and make sure patients stay on their prescribed medication.

County officials monitor these providers for compliance with state regulations, and act as fiscal agents for funds allocated by DHS -- called MHS 34 payments - to pay individual foster home operators.

A typical room and board payment is about $452 per month. Heatherington said the county can make additional funding requests to DHS when a patient's condition warrants.

Heatherington said the number of beds available for mental health clients in the county has shrunk, primarily because of a DHS cap on MHS 34 payments three years ago.

"We had more beds than we had funding," he said. "The concern was that the state would pass money through and because they were overfunding us, start asking for that money back ... we had to be cautious with our funding."

The county has recently received conditional approval for funding from Oregon's Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services for the proposed development of supportive housing. It could take a two years before the project is completed, Heatherington said.

In the meantime, officials have started recruiting more foster home providers. One of the challenges has been fighting the stigma that comes with caring for mental health patients.

"It makes people uncomfortable," she said, adding that the county's patient list includes people exhibiting psychotic behavior to chemical imbalances that lead to severe depression.

"We see the feeling of hope clients get, by having somebody there who can remind them to take their medication and keep a roof over their heads," Dennis said.

"We're using this as a jumpstart, to move their recovery along."

For more information about adult foster homes in Polk County and to inquire about becoming a foster home provider: Cheryl Zentz at 503-623-1886 ext. 162 or 503-931-6878.


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