Public housing residents stabilize lives with help of Mercy St. Vincent

May 15, 2013



Nine years ago, the Madonna Homes public housing complex in Toledo, Ohio, had a revolving door of residents, a 25 percent occupancy rate and a reputation as an unsafe and undesirable place to live. Residents had serious financial and health issues that went unaddressed.

Board members and administrators of the Toledo diocese-owned property recognized that running a substandard property was out of line with the diocese's Catholic values, and so they embarked on a four-year upgrade. Along with building and safety improvements, administrators created a collaboration of community organizations to provide health care, housing, social service, financial and other support to residents. Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center of Toledo is among the contributing partners.

Madonna Homes, which serves the disabled and senior adults, understood people in public housing need more than just housing, they need the structure of supportive services, explained Beverly Bahret, program manager for Mercy St. Vincent's outreach department.

Today, the five-story, 171-unit Madonna Homes is above 90 percent occupancy, and residents who spoke to Catholic Health World say they enjoy living there. Dan Gosbeth, service coordinator for Madonna Homes, said that the support of Mercy St. Vincent and other partners has enabled many residents to address personal concerns — such as health problems — that were limiting their lives.

Community commitment
Madonna Homes is one of seven Section 8 subsidized housing units owned by the Toledo diocese under a holding company called Mareda. (Mercy St. Vincent provides some services at other properties and provides most at Madonna Homes.)

To live at Madonna, people must be 62 years or older or disabled and meet Section 8 income criteria. Ninety percent of Madonna Homes residents are disabled; and about 20 percent are aged 62 and over. About 60 percent are black, and about 36 percent white. Nearly 80 percent rely on Social Security retirement or disability for their income. About 70 percent have visual impairments; nearly 60 percent depression, nearly 50 percent hypertension and 45 percent anxiety disorders.

As part of the transformation that began around 2004, administrators undertook a building renovation and hired security staff. The concrete changes were a start, but to positively impact residents' quality of life, Madonna Homes recognized it needed to address residents' many health and financial concerns too. It convened dozens of Toledo-area health care providers, colleges, community organizations, private companies, churches and other organizations and asked for an ongoing commitment to improve the lives of residents.

Contributors have met monthly since, with three Catholic organizations emerging as top support providers: Mercy St. Vincent; Mercy College of Ohio in Toledo; and Lourdes University College of Nursing in Sylvania, Ohio.

Money 101
With fewer than 6 percent of Madonna Homes residents employed, most are struggling to survive on fixed incomes — typically Social Security disability stipends. To help them manage their finances, Mercy St. Vincent sponsors free, one-on-one counseling with paid financial counselor Elizabeth Donato. She covers topics including spending, budgeting, bill paying, banking, identity theft and taxes. She helps residents set financial goals, make a budget, set up checking and savings accounts and apply for aid programs such as Medicaid.

Bahret said the coaching is needed, since many residents have never balanced a budget, or written a check. With Donato's help, some residents have opened their first ever bank accounts; some have built up savings for the first time in their lives. Budgeting is enabling some residents to avoid expensive payday loans. Several residents have parlayed their newly acquired financial acumen to start microbusinesses, including a jewelry-making venture. Bahret said, "They need to be bridged out of the mindset of poverty, and we're helping them to do that, to manage their money."

Health and wellness
Student nurses from Mercy College and Lourdes University visit residents several times monthly to provide health education, conduct health screenings and to talk with residents about their health questions. A Mercy St. Vincent social worker visits residents that Madonna Homes flags as needing help, and refers them to medical providers at Mercy St. Vincent and elsewhere. Many Madonna Homes residents are on Medicaid or are uninsured, and the social worker refers them to providers who are accepting new Medicaid or charity care patients.

Bahret said that addressing health care needs is important because untreated health issues can interfere with normal routines. She said when encumbered by health problems, people can neglect daily living activities, relationships and financial decision making.

The poverty-mental health connection
Gosbeth said Madonna Homes is working with its partners to try to address residents' mental health issues before they become crises. Mercy St. Vincent's social worker can assess residents' mental health needs and refer individuals to mental health counselors. Gosbeth added that poor "mental health and poverty go hand-in-hand," and stabilizing people's mental health can help them improve their socioeconomic prospects.

Resident Donald Perkins, 56, hopes this will be the case for him. The unemployed chef has suffered from depression since his mother died in 2011, and it has made it difficult for him to find and keep a job. He said Madonna Homes and Mercy St. Vincent are guiding him on how and where to get treatment for his depression, and he is "looking forward to getting help. I want to get back to work," he said.

Culture change
Gosbeth said with Mercy St. Vincent's and the other partners' support, residents have stabilized their health and finances.

Bahret said the culture is changing at Madonna Homes as people see that "someone cares for them, someone is working with them."

Gosbeth said many people in public housing lack family support, and so finding a supportive community where they live means a lot to them.

Andrew Kott, executive director of Mareda, said that gratitude is fostering a budding "pay it forward" culture. "The residents see they're being helped, and then they want to help others." Many Madonna Homes residents are volunteering. For example, a knitting circle produces caps for newborns, low-income schoolchildren and homeless people. Some residents volunteer at Mercy St. Vincent. The programs from Mercy St. Vincent and the other partners inspire residents to "think of others. Everyone here benefits in some way from the programs," said Kott.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.