Merced County homeless with mental illness get place to live

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 25, 2013 

A large number of Merced County's homeless suffer from a mental illness.

Out of 502 homeless people, 203 have experienced mental health issues, according to the 2012 Merced County Homeless Count, said Lori Flanders, spokeswoman for the Merced County Association of Governments. The association organizes the homeless count.

The numbers for this year won't be available until May, Flanders said.

Merced County's Department of Mental Health has a few housing projects to help those individuals, but officials say there's still a shortage of housing for people suffering from a mental illness.

The newest effort targeted at that population is the Gateway Terrace project, which is a new construction development of 66 units in Merced. Manuel Jimenez, director of the Department of Mental Health, said his agency partnered with the Central Valley Coalition for Affordable Housing among other agencies for this project.

Ten of the 66 units will be for the Department of Mental Health, Jimenez said. The project cost was $13.4 million.

The department of mental health contributed $1.2 million in Mental Health Serv- ices Act funds to the project for the 10 units, said Sharon Jones, a mental health services coordinator. Part of the act is to help prevent homelessness and help people who already are out on the streets and suffering from mental health issues.

"We are looking at people 18 and older who are at risk of homelessness or are homeless and suffer from a mental disability according to the Mental Health Serv- ices Act criteria," said Maria Azevedo, staff services analyst for the county's Department of Mental Health.

Some units have three bedrooms, which is different from another housing project the department is involved with.

"We will be able to house their families," Jimenez said.

The department won't be able to house people until the fall at the earliest, Jimenez said. People will be able to submit applications, and the department will make referrals to the Central Valley Coalition for Affordable Housing, which will have oversight of Gateway Terrace complex.

Chris Alley, chief executive officer of the Central Valley Coalition for Affordable Housing, didn't return a call seeking comment on Friday afternoon.

The Department of Mental Health will have an office at the Gateway Terrace location to provide mental health support. Because of sensitivity, the exact location cannot be disclosed.

The department also partnered with the Merced Community Action Agency on an eight-unit housing project. Seven of the units belong to the department of mental health, Azevedo said.

"We want to have housing throughout the county," Jimenez said. "Our priority is housing first -- shelter and safety. Once they are there, we work in getting them the support they need."

The department has at least two other housing projects, including one that is a transitional program.

However, Jimenez said, they could use more housing for this population.

"There's housing shortage for our consumers," he said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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