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News / Health / Clark County Health

Vancouver woman creates home for people with mental illness or who’ve been chronically homeless

Small yellow house in Vancouver currently houses three people

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 21, 2024, 6:10am
6 Photos
Genevieve Fisher of Vancouver, from left, takes a break in the front yard of the house she purchased with her mom while joined by tenants Stephaun Gallaread and Helen Lowdermilk.
Genevieve Fisher of Vancouver, from left, takes a break in the front yard of the house she purchased with her mom while joined by tenants Stephaun Gallaread and Helen Lowdermilk. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Life used to look a lot different for Siddhartha Fisher. He was a gifted child — class president of his elementary school and winner of a state chess championship in sixth grade, his family said.

But cracks in his mental state started to show at age 16 after a traumatic interaction with law enforcement. Over the next decade, Genevieve Fisher watched her older brother, the intelligent young man she’d looked up to as a child, become homeless and murmur to himself.

“When he was first getting sick, he said, ‘One day, I’ll need you, and you won’t be there,’ ” she said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to prove him wrong.”

In 2020, she created a space for him and people like him: Siddhartha’s Dharma, a small house in Vancouver that houses people with mental illness or who have been chronically homeless.

The small yellow house in Vancouver currently houses three people, including Siddhartha Fisher. Genevieve Fisher, who owns the house with her mother, said they wanted to start off with only a few people, especially since the house has only two bedrooms and this is the first housing project created through her nonprofit, Pacific Northwest Coalition of Minorities.

“My goal, really, in this project, is that we can help people that can’t help themselves,” she said.

An alternative model

Genevieve Fisher’s brother is diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, which led to frequent confinement in mental hospitals and jails, she said. His mental illness made him a poor tenant, and he was often kicked out of housing and hotels.

Genevieve and her mother, Cindi Fisher, who became homeless with her son after they were kicked out of her apartment, tried many times to get Siddhartha Fisher into stable housing. But he refused to fill out paperwork because he was paranoid about signing anything, his mother said.

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“Their reality is different than our reality. So the guidelines that most people have to follow in order to be housed — like, ‘You’ve got to sign a lease, you’ve got to follow these rules’ — they’re literally not able to follow,” Genevieve Fisher said.

She felt like there wasn’t a place for her brother to go in Clark County that wasn’t akin to the mental hospitals he hated and often fled. Then, she heard about the Soteria House Model, community living for people with schizophrenia spectrum disorders.

An alternative to a medical psychiatric setting, the model provides a homelike environment where people can go through mental health crises in a place where they feel safe.

“We have to create a space where they’re allowed to exist in the state that they’re in,” said Genevieve Fisher, who also works as a behavioral health nurse for Lifeline Connections.

Although the model traditionally encourages minimal use of antipsychotic medication, Genevieve Fisher said the nonprofit’s volunteers will help people access whatever form of treatment they’d like to pursue.

The model has seen some success in studies, most notably, the 12-year study in the 1970s by American psychiatrist Loren Mosher, which birthed the model. However, the use of these homes doesn’t seem to be widespread.

The model may not work for everyone, but Cindi Fisher said it’s a better option for her son than the mental hospitals he was in before.

“He has extreme challenges being in places where there is not a sense of belonging and being seen as human,” Cindi Fisher said. “He doesn’t trust the system. He hates being locked up.”

Genevieve Fisher had big plans to make the house feel like the opposite of what her brother experienced in the past. But the project is low on funds. Plans for 24/7 staffing and yoga classes are on hold.

Plans to expand

Genevieve Fisher is the chief financial officer of the Pacific Northwest Coalition of Minorities, which used to be called Pacific Northwest Chapter USDA Coalition of Minority Employees. Created in 1999, it sought opportunity for minorities within federal service. In the years before the pandemic, the nonprofit was largely dormant. But Genevieve Fisher helped revive it and take it in a new direction in 2020.

Pacific Northwest Coalition of Minorities receives referrals from organizations that serve homeless people in Clark County, Genevieve Fisher said. The program has housed nine people over the past four years.

In 2020, Genevieve Fisher unsuccessfully applied for a grant from the city of Vancouver. City staff said the project wasn’t eligible for funds in part because of the condition of the house and that it can’t hold more than three people at a time.

In the future, Genevieve Fisher hopes to expand the home and secure a grant from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund. Right now, the home is funded through individual donations and local churches.

Genevieve Fisher said she looks forward to being able to help more people like her brother.

“You get this kind of cycle. People go to the streets, then they go to the hospital, then they go to jail,” she said. “We have to create a place where we can have housing, but not just housing — where they can have support too.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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