At 40 years old, Scott Olsezweski was living in a nursing home. Suffering from schizophrenia, he has also battled substance use and he says he’s been homeless many times. For three years in the nursing home, he spent his days trying to help others by attending to the needs of half a dozen elderly residents.
That changed a year ago, when Scott moved into his own apartment in Rogers Park. Through Heartland Alliance’s Money Follows the Person program, he’s one of nearly 100 formerly institutionalized nursing home patients who have a severe mental illness and now live on their own. Scott exercises every day, watches what he eats, and spends part of his days at a local coffee shop, talking politics and life with friends.
“I’ve had tough times in my life—bad days, bad weeks, and even bad years. Now I’m doing very, very well. I try not to take anything for granted, even just being able to walk to the store or do the dishes,” he says.
Participants in the program are given a subsidy to help pay rent and household expenses, and Heartland Alliance connects each person with a community mental health center that provides services like counseling and medicine management. Even with all this, because of the high cost of nursing home care, the program saves the government more than $40,000 a year per participant.
Money Follows the Person is a federal program running in 29 states to help nursing home residents live on their own; the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health hired Heartland Alliance to create and operate a pilot program to specifically focus on residents with mental illness. Three Heartland Alliance teams work throughout Chicago, spending time with potential participants to see if the program is appropriate. “It’s such a good fit with our mission of human rights,” says Stephen Edfors, manager of clinical operations at Heartland Alliance.
“A lot of these folks don’t belong in a nursing home, but they just don’t have the financial support to get out,” Edfords says. “On the day of transition, they’re so excited and thrilled. When we check in with them after they’ve moved, there are a lot of hugs.”
“I don’t look at it as a place I’ve arrived at. I see it as a starting point,” Scott says carefully of his new life. “I have disabilities in certain areas, and I’ve learned to compensate in those areas. I feel like I’ve found a sanctuary where I can really think about what I want to do.”