In February, ShelterCare hosted a trio of social service leaders from Corvallis who were on a fact-finding mission to see how housing and supportive services were being used to address homelessness in Lane County. The group was impressed with ShelterCare’s wide array of services but it was obvious that one program stood out in their minds from the rest: the Uhlhorn Program for survivors of acquired brain injury. They didn’t realize that such a unique and innovative program existed anywhere, let alone in the Willamette Valley.
Theirs was a common reaction for people who first hear about the Uhlhorn Program, which has been quietly changing lives for more than 26 years. The program is not a treatment facility. Instead, it provides independent living and supportive services in an apartment community specially designed to serve the needs of adults impacted by brain injury.
Programs like this are not common but they are necessary. In the United States, more than 2.2 million people are treated for traumatic brain injuries (TBI) every year. More than 5 million Americans are living with TBI-related disabilities, which can include mobility and memory impairment, communication problems and a host of behavioral issues, including depression and paranoia.
The Uhlhorn Program fills an existing gap in housing and services for TBI survivors. What happens when people recover to the point where they want more independence but need support for daily living? Assisted living facilities provide too much support but not enough independence and are a costly option. Moving in with family members who lack the expertise or time to provide the necessary support is less costly but not a good fit for many people. That’s where the Uhlhorn Program comes in.
The program was developed by its namesake, Bill Uhlhorn, ShelterCare’s visionary executive director in the 1970s and 1980s. He fought a long battle to build a home for the program on the former Lincoln School property in Eugene. Eventually, he pulled together a group of community-minded partners, obtained funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and started construction. The first tenants arrived in 1990—sadly, just months after Uhlhorn passed away.
Despite Bill’s death, the program thrived and his legacy remains strong in 2017. The program, funded primarily by a contract with the State of Oregon, now has two complexes providing 39 apartments for brain injury survivors. The overarching goal is to help clients move forward with their individualized recovery plans and achieve greater independence. Though the housing is permanent and clients can stay as long as they want, many choose to move to new housing options as they become more independent.
The Uhlhorn Program apartments are specially designed to meet the needs of people with short-term memory problems; features include open cabinets and timer-controlled cooktops. Staff is present seven days per week, providing counseling, advocacy and skills training designed to meet the individual need of each tenant. Counselor/Advocates help tenants with a variety of issues from medication management to personal finance to meal planning and preparation.
Lane County is grappling with a challenging homelessness problem, so it is natural to ask how the Uhlhorn Program fits in as a solution—the answer is “very well.” TBIs are thought to be a significant but underreported cause of homelessness. Studies in the UK and Canada have found that 45 to 70 percent of homeless adults have suffered a severe head injury earlier in their lives. Underreporting results because many brain injury survivors exhibit symptoms that are often mistaken for mental illness.
While a history of homelessness is not a requirement, many formerly homeless individuals join the Uhlhorn Program as part of their journey off the streets. It is common for other ShelterCare programs that serve homeless adults to refer new residents to Uhlhorn when people are discovered to have a brain injury in their medical history.
Looking forward, ShelterCare is hoping to enhance and expand the Uhlhorn Program. While there are no plans to develop new apartment complexes, it might be possible to offer Uhlhorn support services to brain injury victims living elsewhere in the community. Plus, Bill Uhlhorn’s vision will continue to spread beyond Lane County, as communities in other states use the Uhlhorn Program as a model and take steps to house and support their own survivors of acquired brain injury.