Community IMPACT Series: Responsibility House, May 4, 2010

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Responsibility House, May 4, 2010

At age 52, Jody, a New Orleans resident, has been through a lot in life, and she's been through it all while suffering from serious and persistent mental illness. She weathered Hurricane Katrina in the tragic refuge of the Superdome. That experience and the storm's aftermath were crushing. She couldn't get a hold on her life and it began to spiral apart. When the rent for her apartment rose dramatically in the post-Katrina period, Jody found herself on the street.

"I was very depressed and withdrawn, and I'd pretty much given up. It didn't matter to me that I was homeless," says Jody.

Fortunately, she soon found Responsibility House, a local nonprofit which serves people who are homeless, and those who suffer from mental illness, addiction or HIV infection. Responsibility House helped her stabilize her life, first by providing reliable housing, then by providing psychiatric treatment and counseling to manage her illness.

"I didn't have any worries. You know my rent was being paid. I had food, I was involved in food banks. And all my medical and mental needs were met," she says. "So you know the ball was rolling but eventually they rolled that ball to me, and so the ball was on me now, what are you going to do with this?"

Michael Martyn is executive director of Responsibility House, and he says that sort of attitude is a key ingredient to make treatment and social services truly effective.

"The part that we can't supply is the willingness and the work that it takes to recover on the behalf of the clients," Martyn says.

What the Gretna-based group does supply, however, is a range of programs that recognize the interconnected nature of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. The group provided housing for many of the homeless people who had gathered at Duncan Plaza near New Orleans City Hall and beneath downtown's Claiborne Avenue overpass in 2007 and 2008. But from these highly-visible campsites, Martyn says, many homeless people have now shifted to abandoned buildings, a change that makes it harder for advocates and service providers to reach them.

"Where they're living, and how they're living, is something of a statement of about how they relate to the world," Martyn says. "They tend to be more isolative, they tend to be more withdrawn, more fearful of contact with public people and places and so forth. And so it's more difficult to reach those people, to engage those people, to get them on board with a notion that working together we might be able to improve the quality of your life."

Jody, however, says she feels very fortunate to have found Responsibility House when she did. Her problems haven't gone away, but she says her experience with the organization has given her powerful tools to manage her condition, and remain in control of her life.

"I'm living independently and I'm working and I feel so good when I come home from work knowing, you know, that I survived that day," Jody says. "Basically I am a strong person, even though I have mental illness. I still am a very functional person with a mental illness, so and I can see what I need to do. It's very clear to me that I need to get up and go out and walk those bricks because nobody's going to do that for me."