For 150 years, the large country kitchen of this farmhouse in Middlesex County has been an inviting place for several generations of the Bloom family to welcome guests as they enter through the rear door.
The warmth of this room is no different today, as three of Bloom House’s five residents greet a visitor on a recent autumn morning. Jen, Sue and Tresea graciously offer their guest a cup of coffee and sit down at the long table where they have enjoyed many conversations during the last two years.
These women and two others, Marion and Linda, are residents of Bloom House, a two-year old permanent supportive housing program operated by SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. This high-independence program for individuals recovering from severe and persistent mental illness is the first of its kind for SERV Centers of New Jersey.
In 2006, SERV acquired the lovely, old farmhouse through a generous donation from John and Marjorie Bloom in appreciation for the care given to their son, a consumer of SERV Centers Middlesex County. The Blooms have since moved to Monroe Township.
According to SERV Centers Middlesex County Director Tammy Wilson, the development of this program in 2007 was unique in its own right. “Normally, we find out what programs are needed, what the residents need, and (determine) how to fill the gap. In this case, we had a building and had to figure out how best to (use the house) and get funding for a new program. We were constantly on the lookout for proposals going out (from the state).”
The issue in Middlesex, according to Ms. Wilson, was that SERV’s Middlesex residents did not have access to traditional supportive housing, which was earmarked for recovering individuals coming directly out of psychiatric hospitals. “We had (consumers) ready to move (to more independent living arrangements) but did not have the opportunity unless they had enough money to finance an apartment on their own. Very few of our residents ever do.” And, she added, some preferred the company of others in a home setting.
Requirements for state vouchers, which pay for part of an individual’s rent in supportive housing, had specified that an individual must live alone. “That setup insinuates that you would want to live alone. There was no other option,” says Ms. Wilson.
SERV sought to find another option. Directors and staff recalled when they, after college, had lived in homes or apartments with other adult housemates or roommates and were able to share expenses and provide support and companionship to one another. Therefore, they asked, if people without a severe mental illness benefited from sharing housing with others, why were people in recovery from a severe mental illness expected to live alone as a sign of their success?
SERV applied for and was able to obtain five program-based vouchers from the Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health Services. SERV used its own resources to rehabilitate the house. The consumers are responsible for paying their portion of the rent for their room and common areas.
The next obstacle for SERV Middlesex was to find five residents who not only might be compatible, but also tended to function better in small group settings rather than living alone. The process took a little more than a year for just the right mix of residents, according to Ms. Wilson.
Now, the Bloom House is shared by five women, all of whom are graduates of SERV’s traditional supervised residential programs. Two transferred from the group-home level and three transferred from the apartment level. They are all in the 40s and 50s age range.
In implementing the new program, SERV staff adhered to the Recovery philosophy to support the individuals in developing personal independence, in finding their own support system outside the mental health system, and learning how to build a community within their peer group.
“Our ladies are to be congratulated for their success at the Bloom House,” says William O’Brien, Chief Operating Officer of SERV Centers of New Jersey. “It really is remarkable what can happen when several resourceful individuals come together, offer support to one another, and recognize that they can individually accomplish so much by working together.”
Unlike at some other permanent shared-housing programs operated at other SERV Centers locations where staff is on-site 24/7, the Bloom House residents are highly independent and receive staff support as needed.
When Bloom House first opened in May 2007, staff support was provided 18 hours a day to aid the women in transitioning to their new home. As the women progressed and needed less support, staff pulled back, all the while encouraging more independence as well as greater interdependence among the women. Now, a staff member visits the house three times a week, two staff members check in by phone every day, and Bloom House coordinator Laura Stanley visits in person one or two times a month. SERV also provides additional visits if needed.
According to Ms. Stanley, the bond that has developed among the women – especially between Sue, Jen and Tresea – has been especially heartwarming. “The ladies look out for each other, drive each other around or assist with transportation,” she says. “The women have become a family,” adds Ms. Wilson, noting that one is particularly protective toward the others, and that others will invite a housemate to their families’ homes for the holidays.
Together the women have worked out an arrangement for cleaning the large, two-story farmhouse. “They do a remarkable job,” says Ms. Wilson.
Each of the women has decorated her own room according to taste. Sue is artistic and likes to display her drawings and arts and crafts items. Tresea, who also likes to draw, has a tidy room with a beach theme. Jen’s room, where the housemates like to congregate for a chat session, is lined with books and stuffed animals and has a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague as a focal point.
Sitting around the kitchen table on a recent fall afternoon, Sue, Jen and Tresea (housemates Linda and Marion were not available) have an easy rapport and are open with their visitor about their new home and their goals.
“The three of us are like a family,” offers Sue, who says she keeps very busy during the day cleaning the house and cooking for the group. A former painter, she now likes to work on her drawings and arts and crafts, which she hopes to sell at Englishtown Flea Market. To facilitate her entrepreneurial goal, she and Jen, who works on Bargello needlepoint on plastic canvas, would like to turn one of the spare upstairs rooms into an arts and crafts studio.
Jen is the self-described “mother hen” for any one of the housemates who might need help with paperwork or other business. The former elementary school teacher, who taught English as a Second Language, would like to some day teach ESL to adults. She says she knows a little French, Spanish and American Sign languages. Knowing the importance of education, she encouraged Tresea to go back to school to get a certificate as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant.
Tresea, a two-time SERV Foundation scholarship recipient, is working toward that goal and hopes to work at The Elms of Cranbury nursing facility, where she currently is a certified home health aide. With her ready sense of humor, she ticks off on her fingers her top-four hobbies: “Number 1 hobby, get all the stuff together to go the school; No. 2 hobby, drive Jen to the doctor; No. 3, take Sue to the library; and No. 4, lay down and listen to the stereo and study.”
All three dream of winning the Mega Million lottery and some day owning a home the three can share with a Golden Retriever or Collie. “And it better not have ONE flea,” Tresea warns with a laugh.