Taking on mental illness

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Robert Runkle, executive director of the nonprofit Trinity Group Homes, chats with community member Amy Dreps Thursday following a ground breaking ceremony for the Post Falls facility that will house housing for adults with mental illness.

Each time Alisha Kernkamp has to turn away someone with mental illness seeking affordable housing, it hurts.

"We always have a waiting list," said Kernkamp, life skills program director at the local nonprofit Trinity Group Homes. "There's definitely a need."

But local groups are responding to help fill that need.

Trinity, which operates two duplexes in Coeur d'Alene that house 18, broke ground Thursday on an eight-room duplex off Poleline in the Tullamore subdivision in Post Falls west of Highway 41. Construction will start soon and is expected to be completed by March.

Robert Runkle, Trinity executive director, called the groundbreaking ceremony a "historic moment and a culmination of two-plus years of planning, design and grantwriting."

The facility is being funded with a $225,000 USDA rural development loan and a $23,818 Inland Northwest Community Foundation grant.

"We expect to have it filled before we open," Kernkamp said.

Able House, a similar venture that serves those with mental illness and is in the process of becoming a nonprofit, recently completed upgrades to the six-room home it opened in Hayden this year.

"I get calls all the time, and I've got to tell people that we're full," said Paul Vannoy, who spearheads the effort with his wife, Tyler. "There are many people without housing who never thought would find themselves in such a situation ... hard-working people who have been lost in a poor economy and are lacking a strong social network to fall back on."

Vannoy, not to be confused with the Candlelight Christian Fellowship pastor with the same name, works at a mental health clinic and sees the demand for housing as a result.

Rent at Able House is $400 per month, which includes utilities, while rent at Trinity is $450. Neither accept funding from state or federal assistance programs such as Medicaid.

The Trinity home in Post Falls is expected to kick off multiple efforts on the north side of the city that will serve residents in need. Dirne Community Health Center is planning a site in the Highway 41 corridor and a veterans home is also in the works.

Kernkamp said expanding to Post Falls was a logical choice because of the need and the wider reach Trinity could provide. She said Post Falls was still eligible for rural development funding when the USDA loan was approved, but that has since changed with the latest Census.

"We kind of snuck in," Kernkamp said.

In addition to the economy, Kernkamp believes Medicaid cuts on psychosocial rehabilitation programs is fueling the demand for more housing options to serve those with mental illness.

"The (PSR programs) are not enough to enable people to live independently," she said. "That's where we step up and fill in the gap."

Kernkamp and Vannoy said community donations and volunteers helped get the homes off the ground.

"There's always going to be a need, but Kootenai County is also very progressive with grassroots efforts to get programs started," Vannoy said. "Able House is just one little cog in a bigger machine."

Able House has a volunteer who stays on site to oversee activities, but the Trinity homes are not staffed.

"We're set up just like a regular home, but we're available if they need help," Kernkamp said, adding that residents partner on meals. "All of our residents are fairly independent. Our focus is providing them with basic living skills and getting them on a routine schedule."

Information: Runkle at rrunkle@gmail.com for Trinity inquiries, and Vannoy at paulvannoy@gmail.com for Able House inquiries.

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