DMH leader's brainchild thriving.
Program helps find homes for people with behavioral health concerns.
By Mavis Chan, Jefferson City News Tribune.
Julie Smith/News Tribune photo: Kelli Kemna poses outside of her Jefferson City office where she serves Missouri as the Department of Mental Health housing director. Kemna loves her job, as she has the opportunity to help many Missourians who find themselves in need of shelter, behavioral health assistance and more.
For Kelli Kemna at the Missouri Department of Mental Health, a unique housing program to help the homeless is her "dream of dreams."
"It's like my love-child program," said Kemna, the housing director at the department. "Like my dream of dreams."
What is so precious to her heart is the housing liaison program, which was first implemented in 2021. She had just become the department's housing director the previous year. In this leadership position, she is responsible for managing 34 federal grants that gave her unit a budget of nearly $30 million annually.
"None of (the grants) actually go toward the construction of housing," she said. "What all these grants go for are services, most of them are for persons experiencing homelessness with unmet behavioral health needs or developmental disabilities."
As the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, Kemna and her team grew concerned for unhoused individuals who had no access to shelters or even phones to get services. She wanted a program that would dig into why these individuals stay homeless, she said.
"(Unhoused individuals) need more than just a once-a-month visit from somebody giving them a blanket. They need someone going out there daily and saying like, 'Hey, can I drive you into town to go get a photo ID? Can I help you get a Social Security card? Do you want to go apply at the Housing Authority for a housing choice voucher?'"
As a result, her brainchild was born. The program allows organizations in the department's behavioral health provider network to hire employees who will dedicate their time to connecting with those unhoused individuals. Compass Health and New Horizons in Jefferson City are two examples of such community partners.
There are now around 50 people across Missouri whose job is to conduct street outreach, and provide services and support to people where they are, Kemna said. Then, these liaisons would also connect their clients to housing resources and behavioral health treatments.
"So (I'm) super excited about that program," she added. "It's already served over 2,000 people, and I think our housed number (of people) is well over 650 at this point."
Kemna's work has led her to prioritize getting people housed first before connecting them with treatments. She said research has shown unhoused people with behavioral needs are more likely to continue treatment when maintaining housing is used as an incentive.
"It's very challenging for people to be doing some intensive behavioral health program when they don't even know where they're going to sleep at night. And it's hard for the providers to find them," she said.
After launching the housing liaison program, Kemna moved on to her next project. She is working on a Medicaid waiver program now, she said, that will provide those eligible for public health insurance with services typically not covered by Medicaid. She listed transportation outreach as an example.
Her team has also been collaborating with the Missouri Housing Development Commission and the Department of Social Services to start the Section 811 Project-Based Rental Assistance Program, she said. The government agencies involved will partner with landlords and help pay part of the rent for extremely low-income people with disabilities ages 18-61, according to the program's website.
"I think it's going to be up and off the ground within the year," Kemna said. "That's a big project that we've been working on for a couple of years that I'm super excited about to come to fruition."