A successful program at risk from funding cuts

Posted March 04, 2011, at 5:51 p.m.

Herbie Allen is a quiet, quick-witted guy who just may be the perfect example of the importance of making wise, thoughtful decisions as lawmakers here and across the country look for ways to reduce federal and state budgets.

He’s 24 years old, visually impaired, and has what he calls a “bit of a psychiatric history.”

He’s nice and polite and clearly smart, but without the help of a little-known program here in Bangor, “would most likely be living on the street.”

Instead, he is living in his own apartment for the first time in his life. He’s able to do so because he has daily visits with a case manager, has learned how to navigate the city’s public transportation system, and has been coached rigorously on how to shop for groceries, budget his money and prepare his own meals.

He goes to vocational rehabilitation and is hoping eventually to be able to work and earn a living.

“I certainly had my doubts that I would ever have a place of my own,” he said during a meeting recently in a sun-drenched office at Community Health and Counseling Services on Cedar Street in Bangor.

Allen is part of CHCS’s Community Rehabilitation Service, a program designed to efficiently and gradually provide clients with the ability to move from group homes into their own apartments.

The program, though still small, has an overwhelming success rate — success meaning that nearly all the clients having gone through the program are eventually able to live on their own and become less dependent on social services.

Doug Townsend, the Bangor regional manager for CHCS, says the year-and-a-half-old program is now serving about 30 clients in the area.

“Success means that our clients don’t go back into a hospital setting and are able to live with a much lower level of supervision. If our clients do go back into the hospital, we find their stays are much shorter,” he said.

The deinstitutionalization movement, which started back in the mid-1960s to address the inadequacies of mental health hospitals and to integrate mental health patients into the community, has been largely a failure.

The idea was that it would be more cost-effective and more humane to allow mental health consumers the ability to function in their own communities with outreach support systems in place to help.

The problem is that the resources saved through the closing and downsizing of hospitals were never adequately distributed into community-based programs.

That is why, nearly 50 years later, homeless shelters and prisons are filled with people suffering from some form of mental illness or psychiatric illness.

Allen grew up in Corinth. He was born blind and by the time he was 17 had undergone nearly 40 eye operations. He attended school at the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts.He has no vision in his right eye and limited vision in his left.

That, combined with his psychological issues, often leads him to regress into a life of isolation.

“It may not seem like much to most people, but the help this program gave me in learning how to navigate the city bus system was incredibly helpful to me,” he said. “Without this, I would certainly have either always been in a group home or probably on the streets. Instead I’m feeling independent for the first time.”

Meredith Smith is the administrator of the program.

Clients involved generally are moved from a hospital setting and then into a group home in the community. Those identified for the program are eventually moved into their own apartments but still have access to daily visits with their case managers.

“Those case managers make sure they are taking their meds and help them find resources within the community to help them succeed. They have the same access to help as they did the in the group home, but they are living nearby in their own apartments. Eventually that management is decreased to a couple of times a week,” Smith said.

Currently, Allen is taking swim lessons at the Bangor Y and is looking to join a writers group.

It was suggested during a recent meeting that the Bangor Public Library might have some programs of interest for him.

“Yeah,” he said. “Perhaps someone from here [CHCS] could check that out for me.”

“Well, actually,” replied Townsend, “Maybe there is someone else that could make that phone call.”

“Oh! You mean me,” Allen chuckled. “Yes, I guess that I could.”

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