- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

A man with bipolar disorder called me this week to see what it would take for him to buy a foreclosure property.

It was kind of sad, talking with this man, who apparently had been beaten down by his circumstances but who also had no concept of the homeownership process.

(According to Psychiatry24x7.com, a Web site dedicated to psychological research and information, "Bipolar disorder involves episodes of both serious mania and depression. The person's mood swings from excessively 'high' and irritable, to sad and hopeless, and then back again, with periods of normal mood in between. Different from normal mood states of happiness and sadness, symptoms of manic-depressive illness can be severe and life threatening." According to a 1999 Housing and Urban Development report, nearly 40 percent of the nation's homeless are single adults with severe mental illnesses.)

This man's monthly Social Security check is about $550 and with this he wants to buy a house. The problem is that that check is all of his income and that he currently lives in a homeless shelter and receives Medicaid for his prescription medicine.

What can the poor do? Even more disheartening what can the poor and those afflicted with mental illness do?

One of the first places to look for help is HUD's Web site specifically at its page for the HUD Housing Counseling Clearinghouse (HCC) (www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hcc_home.cfm). It's a long URL, but it's worth bookmarking for those who need housing assistance. The group also operates a 24-hour automated voice response system at 800/569-4287. Homeowners and home buyers can get referrals to housing counseling agencies through this system, as well.

The HCC collects and catalogs information on housing and homeownership programs, publishes a newsletter targeted to housing professionals and disseminates information on HUD initiatives, just to name a few of its tasks.

From the above Web page, you also can find a national list of agencies approved by HUD to help service your needs. The list is huge and it's not interactive, so be ready to sit down in front of your screen with pencil and paper in hand.

An obvious source for public assistance can be your local Realtor. Unfortunately, not all Realtors are familiar with public assistance and special loan programs. Start with the broker of an office and ask him for a referral to an agent in that office who works with low-income to moderate-income buyers who need special programs.

These agents are worth their weight in platinum for the plethora of information they have harvested over the years.

To get names of offices and agents available to help you, visit www.Realtor.com and click the State and Local Associations link under the About the National Association of Realtors section. Here you'll find listings of associations across the country that have Web sites. Most of these sites have a list of agents that you can search. There's a major database of agents also available on Realtor.com.

While these are good places to turn to for people who have jobs and can get into housing by saving and budgeting, the question for those with mental illness remains unanswered.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (www.NAMI.org) has more than 210,000 members who seek equitable services for people with severe mental illnesses. The Arlington-based organization "supports increasing access to permanent housing and appropriate supports and services that allow persons with serious mental illnesses (or brain disorders) to live in the community."

Permanent housing resources include HUD's Section 811 and Shelter Plus Care programs, as well as tenant-based rental assistance linked to the emerging "elderly only" housing designation crisis.

Those with mental illness also may face the challenge of having limited job skills to make a substantial living required to rent suitable housing, much less buy a home. In addition, "Priced Out in 1998: The Housing Crisis for People With Disabilities," which NAMI helped write, reports that Social Security income is less than 23 percent of median income nationally. The average rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment would take 69 percent of a person's monthly check.

Without proper funding resources, many people with mental illness will find themselves locked into homeless shelters much like the bipolar man who called me.

A country is only as strong as its weakest citizen. With that in mind, we shouldn't let homelessness define our greatness.

M. Anthony Carr, director of communications for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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