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New housing for low-income, homeless people with mental illnesses is coming
The Herald-Tribune - 3/29/2020
Mar. 29--SARASOTA -- In Sarasota County today, a man with a mental illness suddenly evicted from his home, or a woman with a disability seeking safety for her children, have few options. Some wind up sleeping in a car or temporarily staying with friends. Many end up on the street.
But soon, a safe harbor will open at Arbor Village in the city of Sarasota. The 80-unit apartment complex, operating as a kind one stop shop for people with disabilities or mental illnesses, will have space for at least 100 people at a complex on 2901 Fruitville Road, and will provide temporary housing along with access to mental health care and other services.
Blue Sky Communities, a Tampa-based affordable housing specialist, built the $19 million project. To provide the array of social and mental health support that these residents will need to remain safely in their homes, Blue Sky partnered with a Sarasota service agency, Community Assisted and Supported Living, known as CASL. In operation since 1998, CASL cares for about 600 disabled residents in its own scattered housing units, including Renaissance Manor.
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Arbor Village will provide homes for the kinds of people whose illnesses have made them familiar sights on city sidewalks. Poor credit and arrests related to mental disorders or homelessness will not be a barrier, the document promised, but access will be denied to would-be tenants with convictions in the past three years for a violent felony, firearms violations, assault, stalking or drug dealing.
Arbor Village can't solve the problem of chronic homelessness alone. But those involved in finding local solutions call it a highly promising start.
"It's a model for what we should be doing," said William McKeever, the executive director of the Academy at Glengary. "It's a step toward solving some of the larger challenges we find around homelessness."
CASL's administration and case management team will be housed in an office just across the parking lot. They'll help provide transportation and supportive housing services. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Sarasota County is also moving in. NAMI, one of the larger support networks for people living with mental illness and their families, will provide peer and family support at Arbor Village.
Colleen Thayer, executive director of NAMI Sarasota County, called its new location a "natural fit" and said that being on Fruitville Road would allow it to reach many more of its members.
The Mental Health Community Centers is nearby. So is Centerstone Florida. The idea is to focus on the barriers that prevent people from both attaining housing and keeping it, said CASL President and CEO Scott Eller.
"The idea is not to just survive but to thrive," said Eller.
Affordable housing is a major obstacle, particularly for someone with mental health, substance abuse issues or a criminal background, said Melissa Larkin-Skinner, regional chief executive officer of Centerstone Florida.
Having safe, affordable housing is "incredibly important to recovery," Larkin-Skinner said.
Arbor Village's management company has received about 150 applications and had given more than 40 acceptance letters by early March. A slated mid-April opening may be delayed because of the coronavirus, but the apartments are move-in ready.
The 72 one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom units are fully furnished, and with their wood-style laminate floors and nine-foot ceilings, they resemble other new apartments you'd find near downtown Sarasota.
"The whole idea was to add warmth," said Eller. "We've really asked ourselves: 'What would we want if we lived here?'"
Arbor Village is also complete with a spacious community room and multipurpose media room. There is an on-site laundry room with lounge space incorporated.
Building homes that are affordable for Southwest Floridians who depend on disability benefits or minimum-wage jobs poses an unforgiving math problem, and leveraging the necessary public dollars requires patience and expertise. While other local efforts to thread this tiny needle's eye have failed so far, Arbor Village was one of only three projects to receive funding in 2018 from the Florida Housing Finance Corp., which allocated more than $6 million in financing for homeless or disabled residents to the project.
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While the project was able to secure additional funding through other state loans and some money from the National Housing Trust Fund, Arbor Village does not have any money to operate the building.
It will need $15 million a year. So where will the multimillion-dollar operating budget come from?
"A lot of hope," Eller said.
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