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Safe Harbor

Alocal nonprofit organization that provides the mentally ill with a safe, supervised and independent place to live is expanding.

Options for Southern Oregon Inc., which has three apartment complexes in Grants Pass and one in Ashland, is adding another facility in Grants Pass, set to open in November.

All are geared toward low-income adults with severe and persistent mental illness.

"When serious mental illness strikes, an individual can feel isolated, in denial, and low on resources," says Jim Bryson, Options residential management coordinator.

"Most (mental) illnesses start when you become a teenager, or a young adult, and then it can feel like old friends and family don't know you ... . It's at a time when you want to go to school, you want to go to college and there's a real resistance there — a resistance to the reality."

Bryson said this disconnect from reality can lead to a host of problems, not the least of which is finding permanent housing and overcoming poor rental history. That's where his organization comes in.

Options' apartment complexes include The Willows, Blackberry Knoll and Red Oak Apartments in Grants Pass and the StarThistle in Ashland. The new facility, called The Cedars, is set to open in November.

Options started in 1981, offering day services in Josephine County. With county support it expanded its services, including job placement, vocational training and 24-hour-care facilities. In 1993 it opened its first apartment complex and has been expanding steadily since.

Applicants must be 18, within federal Housing and Urban Development income limits, have a chronic mental illness, be able to meet Federal Drug Free Housing requirements, and be capable of keeping an apartment in a sanitary and safe condition.

Thomas Porter, 48, who lives in StarThistle, declined to talk about his mental illness, but his accomplishments are proudly displayed on his walls. In both the bachelor's program at Southern Oregon University and Portland State University's master's in psychology program taught at SOU, he received 3.9 and above GPAs. Framed degrees and certifications hang on the wall, along with a plaque honoring his membership in the prestigious Phi Kappa Phi honor society for distinguished scholars.

"I can't say enough about that man," Bryson said of Porter. "For everything he's gone through ... he has not just survived, he has overcome."

Porter's apartment is cozy and well-kept, with one bedroom, one bathroom and a living room-kitchen combination with giant flat-screen television. Porter says he uses it to work on the computer while he relaxes on his couch.

In addition to his class work, Porter manages StarThistle's community garden. He points out the success of his summer sunflowers and zucchini and a new, more water-efficient watering system he's set up.

StarThistle also has a recreation room and common area with community Internet, newspapers, couches and at least one out-of-tune guitar.

Ken Savage, apartment manager and retired Ashland police officer, said all 11 tenants of StarThistle are self-sufficient, though some need assistance with health care. He said couples are allowed, but current tenants are single. The complex is full. Most of Options' Southern Oregon units have a two- to three-year waiting list.

Bryson said the Options apartments operate like most other rental properties, and as long as tenants can meet the requirements they can stay. Illegal drugs aren't allowed, but alcohol is.

"These aren't foster homes," he said. "They can have legal substances ... like any landlord, if we see that those legal substances are being misused, and the results are damaging, we can act on that." Actions could include making drug and gambling treatment available to tenants in need, said Bryson.

"We never just cut anyone loose."

Porter, a veteran, said that once he finishes his master's, he hopes to be able to aid other veterans, particularly those who may be affected by homelessness and mental illness.

"Those guys who are just getting back, and they don't have a home to go to, they're going to need help, and mental health care if they need it," he said.

Despite infrequent vacancies, Options is taking applications. Call 541-476-2373.

Thomas Porter, 48, is a resident at StarThistle, an apartment complex in Ashland that accommodates individuals with chronic mental illness. - Julia Moore