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Creating Debt-Free Supportive Housing in Tulsa, Oklahoma
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In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a debt-free business model enables the Mental Health Association to develop new units of supportive housing. The agency offers a range of housing options to meet the needs of clients. The debt-free model offers stable, sustainable housing and a revenue stream to support supportive services for clients.

Greg Shinn began his career as a psychiatric social worker and community liaison working in New York City homeless shelters. One of his biggest frustrations was the difficulty of finding sustainable housing placements for clients. In a pre-Housing First era, they made hundreds of housing placements. However, private landlords were not interested in renting to anyone who appeared to be unstable.

During this time, Greg met Sam Tsemberis, then Director of Project Hope, a mobile psychiatric outreach crisis intervention team. Sam later founded Pathways to Housing. At this time, Greg worked closely with Sam and Beth Shinn of New York University on a research project that would be the precursor to Housing First. Greg began to see the critical importance of providing affordable housing first, and then addressing the more complex needs of people who experience mental illness.

This experience led Greg to the Mental Health Association in Tulsa (MHAT) in Oklahoma, where he is Associate Director. At MHAT, he has been part of implementing a Debt-Free Housing Model. The agency started by launching a Capital Campaign, which set the goal of raising $5.25 million to create 186 units of housing and to build an endowment to sustain MHAT.

“The Capital Campaign is the cornerstone of our debt-free model,” Greg shared. MHAT raised funds for housing throughout the city through HUD grants, private capital, and income gained through Section 8 and other subsidies. The MHAT team, which includes an Bill Packard, an urban planner, developed one program at a time as capital became available to buy buildings debt-free. The model and its fundraising effort to end chronic homelessness became known as Building Tulsa Building Lives (BTBL).

MHAT uses a mixed income and mixed population model. Based on HUD funding requirements, residents pay up to 30 percent of their income. Residents normally gain income from Social Security Income, Social Security Disability Income, or employment. Because MHAT owns the properties debt-free, rental income supports operating costs, and is utilized for match funding. “We have capital that is unencumbered by debt so that we can compete for HUD grants through the Continuum of Care. This provides us with dollar for dollar match funding on services we provide, known as a cash match. With a debt-free property, you have leverage to compete for grants that add to your revenue and help support the target population,” Greg explains.

The business plan allows BTBL to purchase new housing units virtually debt-free. It also allows the flexibility to offer clients a range of sustainable housing options to meet the needs of clients in different economic circumstances. MHAT has built a robust housing program with financial stability. With over 450 housing units in scattered sites and integrated units, they offer a range of housing options, including "Safe Haven" (Housing First) and permanent supportive housing (funded by SAMHSA’s Services in Supportive Housing program).

Evaluation data shows that the model saves money, reduces homelessness, and offers a stigma-free community for residents. “We have collected data over five years now, and have demonstrated that we are saving taxpayer funds, offer a return on investment for funders, and have reduced chronic homelessness,” shares Greg.

MHAT’s growth has produced opportunities beyond housing for residents. “As a program grows, it can create more revenue and more jobs. For example, we have a maintenance facility to care for our properties. Most of the staff we employ are people who were formerly homeless.”

Greg shares the success story of a former client. William was enrolled at the University of Oklahoma when he started to exhibit symptoms of a serious mental illness. He became very depressed, started using drugs, and lost everything. He ended up at a local drop-in day center. Outreach workers connected William to the Safe Haven Housing First program at MHAT. “He told us he had an IT background, and wanted to do more with his life.” MHAT hired him as a temporary worker in the housing program. He has since been promoted several times. William moved to a scattered site unit and now lives independently. He currently runs a building, demonstrating immense ability and resiliency.

“I used to think the individuals I served could never deal with a job or an apartment,” Greg explains. “But stories like William’s show me that a job and an apartment are exactly what they need. When people are stuck in an intractable cycle, everything they can give is wasted.”

The debt-free housing model enables MHAT the flexibility and sustainability necessary to help thousands of people like William. “I’ve always been committed to social advocacy and social justice,” Greg says, “but the fact is, if you are running a non-profit you have to know the business side.” MHAT’s debt-free housing business model has provided the capital it needs to grow and improve the lives of Tulsa’s most vulnerable residents.

Read more about MHAT and T-HARP in Wayne Centrone’s blog post, “Working with Giants.”

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