Undermining Special Housing in Fairfax: You Need To Help Trudy Harsh


(Read my note at the end of my blog to learn who took this great photo of Trudy.)

I need your help.

I’ve written before about Trudy Harsh, an inspirational local advocate who began buying houses in Fairfax County, Virginia  for persons with brain disorders after her daughter died.  Trudy’s non-profit group, The Brain Foundation, buys the houses and the county’s mental health agency provides tenant services. It’s a win-win combination in a county where a person with a mental illness can wait 18 years before an apartment becomes available.  

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is demanding that Trudy pay $14,413 in property taxes on four of her houses.  The Brain Foundation’s other three houses are located in Fairfax City — but officials there have agreed to “forgive” $10,883 in annual property taxes because they recognize the homes are being used for a charitable cause that is worthy of public support. 

The Fairfax Supervisors are worried that if they grant a wavier to the Brain Foundation, they could be “opening the floodgates” to other charitable housing groups.

Floodgates? Really? With an 18 year wait — is this a valid concern? If we can help provide more low income and transitional housing by following Trudy’s lead, then I say, bust that damn wide open.

I am certain the county has some sharp witted attorney on its staff who can write a tax exemption that will apply only to the Brain Foundation if the Supervisors are truly worried.

The Brain Foundation houses currently houses 28 people, including three tenants who were homeless, including one who came from a country run shelter. Housing those three tenants has saved the county more than the $14,000 in taxes that it is trying to squeeze out of Trudy’s shoe string group.

This should be a no-brainer for the supervisors.

So how can you help?

Trudy and her supporters are launching a grassroots campaign to educate the board and change its members’ minds. The last time I checked, there were 70 persons in a state run mental hospital located in Fairfax County who were well enough to be discharged but had not place to go. Advocates, such as Trudy, are trying to change that.

Please show your support  by sending an email to the supervisors or by telephoning Supervisor Sharon Bulova’s office at 703-324-2321.  Tell the board that you are in favor “forgiving” the property taxes for the Brain Foundation’s four properties in Fairfax County because persons with mental illness deserve a safe place to live! 

It will only take a second. Here are the email addresses. You can just send one email to Chairwoman Bulova and copies to the others. If you don’t know what to write, send this blog and tell them that you support Trudy!

Chair Sharon S. Bulova <Sharon.Bulova@fairfaxcounty.gov>

John C. Cook, Braddock District     E-mail: braddock@fairfaxcounty.gov 

Penelope A. Gross, Vice Chairman, Mason District   E-mail: mason@fairfaxcounty.gov 

Gerald W. Hyland, Mount Vernon District   E-mail: mtvernon@fairfaxcounty.gov 

John W. Foust, Dranesville District  E-mail: dranesville@fairfaxcounty.gov 

Catherine M. Hudgins, Hunter Mill District  E-mail: hntrmill@fairfaxcounty.gov or  cathyhudgins@cathyhudgins.com

Linda Q. Smyth, Providence District  E-mail: provdist@fairfaxcounty.gov 

Jeffrey C. McKay, Lee District   E-mail: leedist@fairfaxcounty.gov 

Pat Herrity, Springfield District  E-mail: springfield@fairfaxcounty.gov 

Michael R. Frey, Sully District   E-mail: sully@fairfaxcounty.gov 


After you send your email, circulate this blog to your friends and ask them to do the same!

[Washington Post journalist Tom Jackman, who keeps a close eye on Northern Virginia,  mentioned this blog post on the Washington Post site a few hours after it ran. You can read comments  at his blog . Tom also kindly reminded me that I had lifted the photo of Trudy from his blog at the Washington Post. He was the photographer and deserves credit for it and for helping call attention to Trudy’s Brain Foundation. Thanks Tom!)

Here is a blog that I wrote on Mother’s Day in May 2010 about Trudy and why she began the Brain Foundation.

We talk all of the time about being helpless to change our system. Don’t be. Act. Trudy did.


Today is Mother’s Day and I would like to tell you about an extraordinary mother who also is an amazing mental health advocate. Her name is Trudy Harsh and she lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Trudy’s daughter, Laura, developed a brain tumor when she was eight years old. Doctors at Georgetown Hospital in Washington D.C. were able to remove it, but they warned Trudy that Laura would only live for six more years at best. 

As often happens to persons who undergo traumatic brain injuries or have parts of their brain removed, Laura awoke from her surgery a completely different person. She was not the bright, sensitive and loving child that Trudy had given birth to. The parts of her brain that controlled her emotions, especially anger, had been destroyed. 
Doctors tried, of course, to use medications to help Laura control her moods, but she was unable to return to her old life. Laura was disruptive in school and got into fist-fights with other girls. With an uncontrollable urge to eat, she packed on weight. One day, she was caught at school digging through garbage cans for food. Her Individualized Education Program (IEP) noted that she could not pay attention for longer than three minutes in a classroom.
Laura did not die, as predicted, and when it became clear to Trudy that Laura could no longer attend public schools or live at home, she arranged for her daughter to enter a residential school near Atlanta and later another cutting-edge school in Denver. At age 21, Laura returned home and was able to graduate from Chantilly High School here in Fairfax.
But brain injuries, much like mental illnesses, do not simply go away with time.
Laura continued having violent outbursts and emotional stability problems. Her obesity caused her a myriad of health problems
Trudy wanted her daughter to live as full of a life as possible — despite her brain injury — so she got Laura enrolled in an apartment program in Fairfax County, overseen by the county’s mental health services board. Mother and daughter soon found themselves caught in a vicious circle. Trudy would fight to get Laura into an already overwhelmed and under-funded program, only to have her get expelled for violent behavior. When Trudy exhausted what Fairfax County had to offer, she went to other jurisdictions and even other states. She was determined that her daughter would not become homeless. 
Sadly, Laura never did find a suitable program and she died from health complications living at home with her mother. Laura was 38 years-old. In her quest to help her daughter, Trudy became a tireless advocate. She volunteered to serve on committees, went to public hearings, read report-after-report, and became totally frustrated with a bureaucratic process that seemed more interested in publishing studies, filing complaints, and talking endlessly about what to do, rather than actually doing anything.
So Trudy struck out on her own.
Luckily, she had her real estate license and understood mortgages, loans, and federal housing programs, so Trudy founded “The Brain Foundation” and began hosting fund-raisers to get enough money to buy a house — just one house — to help persons who had mental illnesses.
Although a tumor caused Laura’s brain injury, her mother didn’t see any difference between brain damage caused by surgery and brain damage caused by mental illnesses. After all, she said, the brain was just another organ and what did it matter whether it got damaged during surgery or by disease. 
Hosting parties in her home and asking friends for contributions did not raise enough cash for Trudy to buy a house in the Washington D.C. area market — one of the most expensive in the nation.
But Trudy did not give up — the need was too great.
According to a story in The Washington Post, someone with a mental illness could wait up to 18 years before an apartment or group home had an opening.
Trudy approached Wilbur Dove, an entrepreneur who was running his own nonprofit housing group and he agreed to seed her project with $50,000. Trudy used that $50,000 to obtain a $450,000 loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which she spent to buy a four-bedroom townhouse in Fairfax County.
Once she had a house, Trudy cut through red-tape and got Pathway Homes, which provides residential care for persons with mental illness, to move four men into it. Pathway agreed to manage the property and keep track of its tenants, who pay 30 % of their income as rent.
Trudy named the facility “Laura’s House” in honor of her daughter.
For most people that might have been enough, but not for Trudy. She continued raising money through grants and donations, and buying houses. So far, the Brain Foundation has opened five houses and has two more in sight — all because of one determined mother who wanted to make a difference. I often hear people say, “What can I do, I’m only one person?”
I’m glad that Trudy Harsh didn’t adopt that attitude.
Motherhood did not turn out to be an easy path for Trudy, but her love for her daughter and her unrelenting determination to make her daughter’s life better led to Trudy improving the lives of dozens of persons with mental illnesses. In the vast scheme of things, providing housing to a handful of persons may seem like an insignificant step. But not if one of those needy persons is your son or your daughter.
Trudy Harsh proves that Margaret Meade was correct when she said:
 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
 Happy Mother’s Day Trudy.
 And thank you!
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. DONE!!! Thank you Pete for your tireless advocacy.

  2. Pete – I just sent the following to the entire board:

    What will it cost Fairfax County to forgive The Brain Foundation property taxes?

    FY2013 Budget tax base from property tax = $2,106,652,081

    Taxes for The Brain Foundation’s 4 properties = $14,413

    Impact on the tax base from property tax = 0.00068%

    Oh, what if it “opened the floodgates” to other charities providing housing support?

    In wildest optimism, say we actually have 49 more charities providing housing support in Fairfax County at same rates

    0.00068% * 50 = 0.034% of tax base = $720,650

    How much agony and pain and problems and even police activity could be saved by this investment in our citizens?

    In spite of the wealth and wonderfulness of Fairfax County, it has mentally ill citizens and homelessness. With 18 year waits to get low income housing for mentally disadvantaged, we don’t need to tax properties that help these individuals in our community.

    My son has actually been homeless in Fairfax County, well actually, he wound up in Arlington County for a while – no where to go in Fairfax. He has also been in the state mental hospital behind Inova Fairfax where there are about 70 individuals functional and ready to leave – with no where to go in their own area.

    I support The Brain Foundation and any other charity providing care and support for the homeless and mentally ill in this county, and there is no reason for the County not to give up less than 0.001% of the property tax base to support them!

  3. What Trudy is doing is very admirable. A solution that may help both, Tudy’s homes and the much needed taxes. Convert the homes to HUD, RD, or to the federal government programs that support low income people and helps them to pay thier rent. She then should be making the needed money to pay the taxes. I would hope the fairfax county board of supers would support her and give her the much needed time for the conventions. (just a thought for the much needed solution for both parties envolved)
    Than you