Where Will A Hundred South Bend, Indiana Residents With Mental Illnesses Go When Commissioners Shutter Portage Manor?

(3-8-23) What will become of the 103 residents of Portage Manor in South Bend, one of Indiana’s few county homes for individuals with mental illnesses and other issues who are poor or elderly?

“What’s going to happen to us? What can we do?”  the residents have asked Sara Zolman, one of the advocates questioning the group home’s closing.  Zolman was quoted in the local paper telling St. Joesph County Commissioners,“It is a family. It is a 30-year-old helping a 75-year-old. … It works with a heart. My heart is breaking for them. … There is no other place like this.”

What’s puzzling is how the local county commissioners are handling the closing.

I was told there was no advance public input before a vote and while the commissioners are claiming the county can’t afford to keep operating the home, financial records sent to me suggest Portage Manor is self-sustaining and doesn’t depend on county taxes.

So what’s going on?

Advocates are hoping an investigative reporter at the South Bend Tribune or other news outlet will demand to see financials and ask tough questions about the closing rather than simply relying on statements by St. Joseph County Commissioners.

Shortly after my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was published, I visited South Bend and was impressed with the quality of  housing provided in the community for individuals with mental illnesses. I often cited the community’s successful housing facilities in my speeches.

So I was surprised when I began receiving emails from advocates about the closure of Portage Manor. For more than a hundred years it has been providing assisted living services for adults with mental disabilities, providing medication management/monitoring, meals, laundry, and assistance with activities of daily living. Many of the residents have failed in individual community living circumstances – despite intensive case management services.

St. Joseph County Commissioners have assured residents that they will not become homeless. I hope that’s true, but I’ve heard such talk before and the sad reality is that in many cases displaced residents are shuffled off to substandard housing where they don’t receive adequate care. They end up in jails, abandoned on the streets, or die.

From news accounts, St. Joesph County Commissioners have not produced a plan that will guarantee Portage Manor residents will be cared for once their home is shuttered. It’s a concern raised by Matt Costello, protective services director for Logan Protective Services, which serves as a legal guardian for some residents. He asked St. Joseph County commissioners: “Now where do people go? Many, if not most, of these people will be transferred to inadequate, distant places where their needs won’t be met.”

Our elected officials always claim there’s no money for operating mental health housing programs, such as Portage Manor.  They cost too much. But that’s not true.

In a groundbreaking analysis, the Perryman Group in Texas compared the cost of proving decent housing and mental health care to expenses encumbered by a community for not providing care. What it discovered was that providing adequate mental health services actually saves communities money. The economic costs related to losses of jobs, income, costs related to arrests, jails and criminal justice prosecution, and homelessness, plus other expenses related to untreated mental illnesses proved significantly higher.

If there are savings to be had, why aren’t public officials eager to provide services.

The reason is simple. Who will pay for the programs? County officials want the states to pay. States can save money by pushing the costs back on counties or onto the federal government.  If the state can save funds by forcing a city or county to keep someone with a mental illness locked in jail rather than receiving more expensive state services – well.  One Virginia politician told me, “It depends on whose pocket is being picked.”

Lost in all this talk about money is the human costs. A question that St. Joseph County Commissioners might ask themselves at night before going to sleep is would Portage Manor be closed if one of their children, spouse or a parent lived there.


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.