Chesterfield Observer April 30, 2008
by Katherine Houstoun  CONTRIBUTING WRITER

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Harry Hawley prepares a meal in his new apartment. Hawley recently transitioned back into the community after living at Gateway Homes, a residential treatment program for people with mental conditions.

When Harry Hawley arrived at Gateway Homes almost two years ago, he was homeless, alone and suffering from depression and anxiety. Today, Hawley is living independently, shopping for his own groceries, managing his medications and holding down a part-time job. Most importantly, he’s feeling pretty good about it. “I wasn’t in too good of shape when I came in,” said Hawley, 56, an Air Force veteran. “But you might say I’m practically healed. I still have to keep on my medications – I’ll always have to do that – but Gateway really helped me get myself together.” Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Hawley had been in the care of CARITAS, Richmond’s largest emergency shelter program, for about a year before his case manager helped him apply to Gateway Homes, a nonprofit organization offering a transitional residential treatment program for people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or depression. There he received an individualized treatment program that included compassionate care, medication education, group therapy and workshops on building healthy relationships, anger management and independence skills.

“I’ve always had problems with anxiety, even as a child,” said Hawley, who moved back into the community about a month and a half ago. “But I’ve actually changed. I’m more relaxed, calmer. I handle myself a lot better.” Founded in 1983 by a group of families who wanted to find a home for loved ones suffering from chronic mental illness, Gateway Homes, located on a rustic 30-acre property in southern Chesterfield County, has evolved to become a highly revered transitional program that helps adults learn to manage their illness so they may go on to lead fulfilling lives in the greater community.

“At the time that we started, Gateway was more a place for care and treatment and housing, making sure that the basic needs – food, housing, care and treatment – of this disenfranchised group were taken care of,” explained Jack McGrath, a Gateway Homes board member who has been involved since the organization’s early days. “It was not known at the time whether people would be able to move back out into the community.” Over time, Gateway shifted to a more transitional, clinically-based approach relying on a three-tier system that encourages residents to progress from an assisted living facility to on-campus apartments where they are challenged to become more self-sufficient and, ultimately, back into the community, where they will continue to receive support services from Gateway staff. The assisted living facility, called the Assessment Center, can house 15 residents, while three on-campus apartment buildings house eight residents apiece. With 18 former residents now living independently in the community and another dozen expected to move out by the end of this year, Gateway Homes is seeing results. “We’re seeing people become more independent and recovered and find themselves working into the community,” said McGrath, who has dealt with schizophrenia within his own family. “It’s always with a connecting link, an umbilical cord if you will, to Gateway Homes so that there is a monitoring of these people while they are in the community to make sure they are not skipping their meds and living good lives. But it’s working. This system is working.” And while the organization was originally founded to provide care for the founders’ loved ones, Gateway increasingly serves citizens referred from state institutions, hospitals and homeless shelters.

“The numbers tell us that 15 to 25 percent of those on the street have a mental illness,” said Daniel Herr, Gateway’s executive director. “They don’t have the funds, they don’t have the care, they don’t have the motivation to take care of themselves because they don’t have medication…To a large extent, it’s the impoverished part of our population that is neglected, and it’s the impoverished part of our population that Gateway has at least been able to tap into. About 30, maybe even 40 percent now, [of our residents] are people who have nothing; they’re in trouble, they’re in jail, state hospitals, homeless.” Melody Price, 49, arrived at Gateway Homes from Central State Hospital almost one year ago. Three years before that, Price, who was diagnosed at age 30 as a high-functioning manic depressive, stole and wrecked a truck, landing her in Richmond jail for eight months and Central State Hospital for more than two years.

“Whenever I’m off my meds, I tend to get a little grandiose, and that’s gotten me into trouble quite a bit,” said Price, who lives in an on-campus apartment. “I had a really fast paced lifestyle before. I was running from one state to the next state. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Now committed to staying on her medications and maintaining a healthier lifestyle, Price credits Gateway Homes’ peaceful atmosphere with helping her get better. “This place is heaven compared to some of the places I’ve been in,” she said. “You really feel like people have your interests at heart. Getting back to nature, staying in the country, it’s been real healing to me.”