Stephanie Brown sat in her Evanston apartment, surrounded by Christmas presents she was wrapping for her grandchildren, and talked about what it was like to move out of a nearby nursing home.
"It felt like I'd been released from prison," she said. "I have my dignity back."
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Brown, 61, struggles with depression. The illness took hold gradually, reaching its most acute point after Brown's marriage collapsed. She became suicidal and was hospitalized.
After Brown was discharged, family members placed her in a nursing home that serves people with mental illness. Such privately owned but state-funded facilities are called institutions for mental disease.
Everyone hoped that Brown could recover in the IMD, but that didn't happen. Brown said she felt lonely, helpless and scared while living there. She said the staff made her feel like a burden or ignored her altogether. She said she was physically assaulted by other residents.
Brown told her psychiatrist that life in the IMD was not helping.
"I was supposedly there because of my depression, but that place itself was depressing me," she said.
In all, Brown spent three years in the IMD. Then an Evanston-based organization called Housing Options found a spot for her in one of its residential buildings. Later, the group found and leased the apartment she now lives in.
"It's changed my whole life," Brown said. "It freed me from having to worry. I feel like I have control again. Just doing everyday stuff like making a meal for myself makes me feel so good."
Housing Options owns six buildings in Evanston and leases about 20 apartments throughout the community. The group's mission is to find affordable housing and services for people recovering from mental illness. Its funding comes from public and private sources as well as resident participation fees. It serves about 80 clients and has a full waiting list.
"People with mental illness have a right to live in the community just like anyone else," Executive Director Debbie Bretag said. "I can't tell you what it's like when I hand over keys to a client's place for the first time. The look of happiness on the person's face -- it's amazing."
Housing Options' attempts to acquire buildings over the years almost always met stiff opposition from neighbors, Bretag said. The complaints have been similar to those expressed against recent supportive-housing proposals in the Northwest suburbs.
Bretag said that after the initial outcry, her group's buildings and clients never experienced any problems. Evanston Housing Planner Mary Ellen Poole confirmed that.
"We never get any complaints about Housing Options," she said. "They run a really tight ship, and their buildings are maintained extremely well. I'm impressed by what they've accomplished."
Brown's battle with her illness hasn't ended. She takes medication and undergoes therapy. A caseworker from Housing Options maintains regular contact with her to make sure she's staying active and feeling OK.
"Getting out and doing something is so important," Brown said. "When depression really takes hold, it makes you want to withdraw. You feel like going into a room and closing the door and never opening it. That's why my caseworker is always asking, 'Did you take a walk today?'"
But Brown said she feels good overall and remains optimistic that she'll be able to keep her symptoms stabilized, primarily because she's now living a regular life.
"I do things that anyone else in the building might do," she said. "When I'm out in the community, no one can tell that I have a mental illness. It doesn't define me as a person."