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Passion to help people translates into housing

By Kaye Hult

Early next year, Trinity Group Homes, Inc., plans to open eight new living spaces to house adults with mental illness in Post Falls.  It is breaking ground for the project on Oct. 5. The agency now houses 17 individuals in various residences in Coeur d’Alene.

Bob Runkle, Trinity Homes
Bob Runkle and Alisha Kiefert of Trinity Homes

Bob Runkle, executive director of Trinity, is the driving force behind the expansion. 

At Georgia Tech, his bachelor’s degree was in building construction.  He came to Trinity Group Homes in 2008, after more than 37 years in professional management, with more than 20 years in facility construction and design.

Bob perceives his previous and current work as ministry.  After he is ordained as a perpetual deacon on Oct. 21 at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Spokane, he will formally consider the work with Trinity Group Homes as his main function as a deacon.  Another aspect will be his continual efforts to network within Kootenai County for people in need. 

“I have always had a passion for helping people,” he said.  “While income has been important, I also have worked in order to be able to help.  I find it hard to separate my ministry from my job.”

Trinity board members welcomed Bob’s managerial and grant-writing experience.  He has helped the homes be full most of the time and have a waiting list.

Trinity Homes, founded in 1979 for men and women with major mental illnesses, offer residents a safe and affordable place to stay.  Without it, their options would be undesirable, said Bob.  In most places, drugs and alcohol are readily available.  Trinity prohibits drug or alcohol use.

“Our mission is to provide caring, community-supported housing programs that guide and teach life skills to residents.  They live in duplex buildings, which are state-certified group homes.  Our staff works with residents to build and develop life skills.  We network with case management service providers to ensure medication compliance and 24-hour crisis intervention, as well as psycho-social rehabilitation services,” Bob said.

The Kootenai County Mental Health Court sends Trinity some of its residents, mentally ill individuals with felony convictions.

“We strive to help residents  graduate from our semi-independent group living programs to community living.  About 64 percent of those in our program “graduate,” moving on to independent or group living situations.  Some graduate and stay at Trinity,” he said.  “This helps the community, as well as individuals. 

Trinity costs taxpayers nothing, but it provides Kootenai County a financial gift in hundreds of dollars a day it saves in costs per person if the people were housed in a prison or a hospital, he said.

Assisting Bob is Alisha Keifert is Trinity’s life skills coordinator.  She supports the residents in areas where outside agencies leave off. 

“Many residents come from families in which the parents did everything,” she said.  “I make sure they do their assigned chores.  I’m strict and have evicted some who have not done their part.

“I accidentally fell into this,” Alisha said.  “After I went to college for education, I realized my heart was not there.  I changed to psychology.  Then I heard about psycho-social rehabilitation. 

“This has to be a passion for anyone who does it.  It’s too hard otherwise,” she continued.  “I take this home with me every day.  I’m continually thinking, is this a skill this person will need when they’re on their own?”

On average, a resident remains at Trinity Group Homes for nine to 10 months.   It is not necessary to “graduate.”  Three have lived there for 10 years.  Six others have lived there for two years.

Those living at Trinity have their own rooms in a living setting that includes both men and women.  They must remain clean and sober, Bob said.

Residents learn to live within their means.  They have to pay their $450 per month rent.  With what remains of their income from Social Security disability payments and other sources, they have to buy their food and pay monthly co-pays for treatment.

Alisha spends much of her time in and out of the houses, observing how the residents are doing.  If she sees problems, she contacts their case managers, seeking to nip any problem in the bud.  She also helps residents become self-aware.  They learn to recognize their own symptoms and reach out for help when necessary.

For example, one resident wanted to enter a nursing program but had difficulty with alcohol.  If she was caught drinking, she would return to jail and lose her probation.  Alisha helped her recognize that it is possible for her to take control of her own life, to choose with whom to associate and in which activities to participate.

The residents meet once a week for community meals.  This helps them improve their cooking and communication skills.  It teaches them to plan and do things with others.

Trinity sets up occasional outings, such as a yearly Christmas party put on by board members.  They purchase gifts.  Women from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and other church and community groups also provide gifts.  Residents can ask for what they would like to receive.  They improve their ability to socialize as they eat a formal meal with board and church members.

At a Christmas party a few years ago, Bob observed one older resident teach a newer one how to set the table.  Usually, the older resident was reticent.  Bob delighted in seeing that person reach out to another spontaneously.

He also connects residents with resources that can help, for example helping them earn a G.E.D. or access the system for their benefit.

To extend its budget, Trinity Homes uses volunteers to transport residents.  Last year, volunteers gave 2,400 hours.

While 80 percent of income comes from the rent paid by residents, the rest comes from fund raisers, donations and grants.   

“We are the only institution like this in the five northern Idaho counties.  The secret to our success is that we keep our housing full, so that we have the maximum income possible,” he said.

Continually having a waiting list, Bob felt the need to expand Trinity’s capacity. 

Trinity Homes, which now has its office at 2115 E. Sherman Ave., Suite 105, expects to complete construction in Post Falls in 90 days, increasing its capacity by more than 40 percent.  The doors will open early in 2013.

“The best thing that has happened to me was this job.  I had to learn about mental illness,” Bob said.  “It is challenging and difficult, yet so rewarding when there are successes.”

Bob felt called to ministry many years ago, but ignored it. 

After he came to Coeur d’Alene, Fr. Pat Bell of St. Luke’s Episcopal asked him, “When are you going to become a deacon?”  A woman in the church also asked him.

Bob spent 11 months in discernment.  He entered training in 2009.  During a postulant phase, he engaged in field work.  In 2010, he became a candidate and did the two years of study.

As a deacon, Bob can assist the priest, such as by reading the Gospel during the Sunday worship service, or performing baptisms and marriages. 

One meaning of the word, “deacon,” is servant, so deacons commonly work with marginalized people inside and outside the church.  Deacons are often called to do specialized ministries, such as Bob’s at Trinity Homes.

 For information, call 208-667-9607 or visit trinitygrouphomes.net.