Help, not prison, now under construction for people with mental illness

After 10 years of advocacy, a residence for mentally ill people who would otherwise be locked up for crimes is finally on its way to the Bronx.

Hope House officially opens its doors Tuesday in Crotona, promising to take in 16 people at a time who have conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, the nonprofit organization sponsoring the project, expects construction to be completed sometime in 2025.

I want them to be able to leave Hope House and never go back into the criminal justice system, said Greenburger Center Executive Director Cheryl Roberts.

Roberts and Greenburger Center founder Frances Greenburger have nurtured the Hope House idea for years, despite obstacles including a federal ban on Medicaid dollars being used for mental health homes with more than 16 people.

Their $13 million facility will house people living with severe mental illness who have been charged with crimes, as an alternative to jail or prison. Split equally between men and women, the six-year pilot program will house 16 people at Crotona Park North near Marmion Avenue.

One in five people incarcerated at Rikers Island has a serious mental illness, according to a recent analysis by City Comptroller Brad Lander.

Alternatives to Jail, or ATI, are already well integrated into New York City’s justice system, with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice funding 24 programs through 14 nonprofits that provide therapy, employment assistance, job training and mentoring, and more. Although several also help participants find housing, Hope House would be the first residence for people charged with crimes.

Residents will have access to therapeutic services, psychiatric counseling and skills training, such as cooking, with services run by Argus Community Solutions. They will also be able to enjoy recreational activities and meet up with family.

Residents would stay there for up to two years, which is the length of time recommended by psychiatrists, Roberts says. Four beds will be reserved for Bronx residents, and registered sex offenders will not be eligible, according to recommendations from Bronx Community Board 6. The site will also have 24-hour on-site security.

For a person to be eligible to stay at Hope House, the judge presiding over their felony charges must order treatment as part of a plea deal and decide how long the person can stay at the facility based on clinician recommendations. The public defender and district attorney working on the case also offer feedback.

People placed in homes there in lieu of prison or jail time would have to stay on site until they’re stabilized, which would generally take at least six months, according to Roberts. Medicaid, she noted, usually only pays to stabilize people for 28 days.

We knew that wasn’t long enough, Roberts said, especially with this population.

They leave better than when they came

There will be a lot of people involved in the decision of who gets diverted here, Greenburger told GRAD. A literary agent and commercial landlord, he began working to establish a safe facility like Hope House after managing the system with his son, who has mental illness and was incarcerated.

As I was going through the system, I had 20 feet of psychiatric reports. I understand what he did wasn’t great, but let’s send him to a mental health facility, Greenburger said, recounting something the prosecutor told him: If you bring us a secure facility, think twice. I didn’t realize that they sent me for fools, because there weren’t any.

The future site of The Hope House in Crotona Park will provide a residence for people with severe mental illness who have been charged with a crime, November 13, 2023. credit: Ben Fraktenberg/GRAD

The project is funded through a combination of Medicaid funding and state aid.

New York State spends $115,000 a year to incarcerate each person in its prisons, according to the Vera Institute. Costs have risen even more in New York’s jails during the pandemic, reaching $556,539 per person in 2021, according to a Department of Corrections analysis by former city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Roberts said it costs about $125,000 to house each person at Hope House, which is much cheaper in the long run.

Hope House is in some ways a continuation of the deinstitutionalization movement that began in the 1950s, during which 95% of mental health beds eventually disappeared. What were 550,000 beds available for people with mental illness in the 1950s have dwindled to less than 40,000 by 2016, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, which advocates for the restoration of mental health treatment capacity.

State and private prison operators have built a million beds in their absence, Greenburger said.

We were taking the mentally ill out of mental hospitals and putting them in prisons and thought we were going to accomplish something, Greenburger said. When you put people with mental illness in prison, they will leave worse than they came.

JoAnne Page, executive director of Fortune Society, an organization that promotes and manages alternatives to prison, told GRAD that a significant percentage of their clients have mental illness and that Hope House is desperately needed, explaining how easy it is for a person to be affected by a crime.

If you are homeless on the street and mentally ill and you sleep on the doorstep, you can be convicted of a felony. If you’re homeless and you urinate in public because there aren’t enough other places to urinate, you’re a sex offender if you’re arrested, Page said. It is such a trap that it is destructive to the person involved, to their families, to their communities and to the wider community.

With Hope House, the goal is to improve that flawed system.

The idea here is that if they come here, they leave better than when they came in, Greenburger said.

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