Left to right, Sue Shimon, Executive Director of New Foundation Center, Peter Braithwaite, Evanston  2nd Ward Alderman, Debbie Bretag, Executive Director of Housing Options, Ken Bennett, Regional Representative for U.S. Secretary of Labor, and John Mayes, Chief Executive Officer of Trilogy.RoundTable photo

You have something in common with Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, keynote speaker Ernest Wilson told job seekers attending last month’s Northside Workforce Development Alliance Resource Fair at the Chandler-Newberger Community Center.

Like you, Mr. Wilson told the audience, those historic giants battled mental illness.
Griselda Marroquin came to the Resource Fair as part of a job search she was undertaking with the support of Housing Options, an Evanston non-profit organization that was one of the organizers of the event.

Ms. Marroqin’s quest for employment was not the first step in her journey with Housing Options. With their support she was taking a new medication for the depression that had haunted her whole life and was freed from the tensions of living with a daughter and son-in-law she said “did not understand my disease.”

Acknowledging her passage from hopelessness to hope, she said, “I can’t believe I’m here. In 10 months everything has changed. I have my own apartment with no one to bother me. … I am blessed 100 percent.”

But Ms. Marroquin was ready for something else. “I don’t want to be home. I’m a hard worker. I want to be at work,” she said, adding, “With my medicine, I’m healthy. I have lots of energy.”

Individuals like Ms. Marroquin, who suffer from a mental illness, have been finding refuge with the Evanston non-profit Housing Options since 1988. Through the years, says the organization’s Director of Workforce Development Matthew McFarland, Housing Options has “stayed true to its mission” of providing clients with supportive, integrated housing in the community.

Since 2011 the organization has also helped participants like Ms. Marroquin find meaningful employment. The Resource Fair, a collaborative effort of four community non-profit mental health organizations, was a function of Housing Options, Trilogy, New Foundation Center, and Community Counseling Centers of Chicago.

Housing Options is grounded in the principle that people can recover from mental illness. Convinced that recovery cannot begin until people have a safe, comfortable place to call home, Housing Options has always started by providing clients a sustainable, permanent living space.  

This “housing-first model,” says Mr. McFarland, responds to an “acute need” of their clients, 45 percent of whom were formerly homeless. “Before [dealing with] work or other issues, [people] must have a roof over their head,” he says. “You can’t have clean clothes or show up on time without housing.”

Housing Options purchased its first building in 1994 and now owns six apartment buildings and leases an additional 16 scattered-site apartments throughout Evanston. Residents live independently in one- to three-bedroom apartments to which Housing Options holds the master lease, Mr. McFarland says. The organization has established itself as a good landlord and neighbor, spending on average $100,000 each year to rehabilitate, improve, repair and maintain their buildings.

After settling into one of the full-size, fully furnished apartments, 97 percent of Housing Options’ participants choose to take the next step and receive treatment services. They work with a multidisciplinary team that includes licensed clinical professional counselors, licensed social workers, mental illness substance abuse specialists, housing coordinators and supported employment specialists.

But clients are not required to accept or comply with these services in order to qualify for housing. Debbie Bretag, executive director of Housing Options, says the organization’s person-centered approach means services “are driven by the participants” rather than dictated to them. The organization operates under the assumption that clients “are capable of making decisions,” she says.

Housing Options is committed “to provide participants with every opportunity for independence” on the road to recovery, Ms. Bretag says. After their needs for housing and clinical support are met, she says, “participants need the opportunity to get back to work.”

Shortly after she took the helm, Ms. Bretag and her staff began looking at models for programs that help people with a mental illness “get jobs and keep them,” she says. They adopted an evidence-based practice shown to result in good outcomes.

After securing a three-year grant, they launched Housing Options’ I-WORK — Individuals Welcoming Opportunities for Responsibility and Knowledge — in March 2011.

“It has been a great success,” Ms. Bretag says – so successful the program’s employment rate of 52 percent is the highest of any supported employment service in the state.

Regina Cowley was living at an Evanston shelter, Hilda’s Place, until she found housing with Housing Options. She has since connected with I-WORK and is in line for a promotion at a 5 Guys restaurant. She says Mr. McFarland and Ami Tran, program coordinator, are her “biggest support;” with them she can “scream, shout and release pressure.”

Entering I-WORK, like moving into a Housing Options residence, is a simple and client-initiated procedure. There are “no job-readiness training, no assessments,” says Mr. McFarland, adding, “The only requirement is that [participants] want to work. They’re job-ready when they say they are.”  With I-WORK, he says, “Employment is part of the treatment … a vital part of – not the result of – the recovery process.”

Most people come to Housing Options with skills and a history of work that was interrupted by a bout with mental illness. Mr. McFarland and Ms. Tran initiate each job search by listening to the individual’s experience and desires. Then, they say, they “bring people together” to match individuals with a competitive job that can start them on a career path.  

“Evanston has embraced the initiative,” says Mr. McFarland. Though staff sometimes face misconceptions about mental illness, he finds most employers are just interested in whether a job candidate “wants to work” and “can perform the necessary functions.” Employers know a Housing Options backup team is available if concerns arise. Once they hire an I-WORK participant, Mr. McFarland says, “the vast majority of businesses want to get involved.”

“The number-one dream of people with a mental illness,” speaker Wilson told Resource Fair attendees, “is to be able to go to work.” I-WORK operates with the confidence that the benefits of working he extolled — social contact, identity, regular activity, structure and purpose – are also important aids to regaining mental health and independence.