Melba Lara: All 18 of Cook County’s public housing developments will soon have mental health workers on site. Officials say it’s the first such initiative in the U.S. and part of an effort to help residents recover from the pandemic. WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang spoke with Richard Monocchio to hear more. He's executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang: Tell us what will these behavioral health specialists be doing?
Richard Monocchio: You know, residents experience a wide, just like the general public, a wide range of issues. There's anxiety and depression - could be substance abuse. It could be a hoarding problem. It could just be a fear of leaving their apartment. You can tell that there's issues that haven't been addressed here. So the behavioral health specialists, case managers that will be in the buildings are really going to be there to assist residents directly with problems they might be experiencing with their mental health, their physical health, getting them connected to other health care professionals that can assist them with their needs if the person on site can't. You know, it's direct service, but it's also triage for individuals who might need different types of services.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang: So how will the program work? Can people walk in or do they have to make appointments?
Richard Monocchio: You know, we're going to be very deliberate in how we roll this program, because unfortunately, mental health is still stigmatized in many ways. You know, it's not going to be a situation where the health care worker has an office and a sign up and says mental health care. No, we're going to have events. We're going to have, you know, mingling sessions, we're going to have lunches. We're going to have bingo. All ways for the residents to become connected to the individual. So then when the relationship is developed, the workers can see how people are are doing. And then at the same time, the resident would feel more comfortable in coming to the worker if they're experiencing difficulties.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang: Why is it important to have mental health workers on site at these buildings instead of, you know, at a different location?
Richard Monocchio: It's critical that we get this care right where the people are at. So we know for a fact how difficult it is even for people that have insurance and know how to navigate the system to get the therapist, for example, that they can trust, to get medication that they might need. It's a system that really hasn't worked for a long time. I think it's been recognized. Many mental health care clinics in the city of Chicago were closed, which was a huge mistake in my view. And we're trying to do to repair that problem, not only in the public housing system, but also countywide.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang: So, federal resources, specifically American rescue plan money are being used for this. What happens after those funds run out?
Richard Monocchio: Yes, this program is being funded by three years through American rescue plan money that was granted to us by Cook County. So what we're gonna do, you know, from day one is track the success of the program. How many people have been served? You know, how many fewer lease violations have been committed, for example. How many people have been given access to other services like SNAP and, and other benefits. You know, we're under no illusion that this program is going to be something that can go on forever unless we can prove it works. And then we'll have to go after the competitive state and federal funding. But I really believe that this is a unique partnership. I don't think this is being done any place in the country.
Melba Lara: That was Richard Monocchio from the Housing Authority of Cook County, speaking with WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang.
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