Overcoming Challenges to Consumer Integration: Tips from Housing Options Made Easy
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This is the second in a series of articles highlighting Housing Options Made Easy, Inc., a consumer-run supportive housing program in Western New York. Created by a group of consumers, Housing Options Made Easy is one of the largest peer-run agencies in the United States. This article offers suggestions for overcoming some of the common challenges faced by agencies on the path to successful consumer integration.
Read “Recovery and Homeless Services: New Directions for the Field” to learn more about how consumer integration promotes recovery-oriented care in homeless services. It’s part of the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services.”
How can an agency committed to supporting consumers as colleagues overcome biases?
This is a fundamental question faced by all agencies committed to consumer integration. Consumer integration means bringing people with experiences of homelessness, mental health issues, substance use, and trauma into staff and leadership roles in homeless service agencies. It promotes the recovery values of empowerment, peer support, and hope. It contributes to creating person-centered, recovery-oriented program environments.
Peer providers bring a wealth of lived experience and expertise to the job. They act as “Recovery Ambassadors” and provide hope to consumers struggling with behavioral health diagnoses. Consumer integration shifts the relationship between consumers and mental health professionals. By hiring peer providers, agencies move toward of organizational culture and service systems.
Change is not always easy. Agencies may experience friction or unexpected conflicts along the path to consumer integration. They may find that staff members need to be educated on the benefits of consumer integration. There may be negative attitudes that need to be addressed to foster a supportive and respectful workplace culture.
Housing Options Made Easy, Inc. is one of the largest peer-run agencies in the country and one of only a few that provide supportive housing to families. Housing Options employs a staff comprised entirely of peer-providers in its supportive housing program for families.
As a consumer-founded and consumer-run program, Housing Options was an early innovator in the peer-provided services movement. The program has developed a state-of the art peer-specialist training program. Drawing on 20 years of experience, Housing Options shares tips for overcoming obstacles on the path to consumer integration.
Allocate Resources for Consumer Integration
If an agency is committed to consumer integration, it must allocate resources to add peer specialists to the staff. As new grants and contracts are developed, the agency should begin adding positions designated for consumer/survivors. New positions can also be created as turnover occurs in the existing staff.
Provide Employees with Adequate Support
For most consumers, working as a peer provider is a new and untested role. To ensure the success of peer providers, it is crucial that an agency provide adequate and ongoing supports. The agency must build in training, supervision, provisions for reasonable accommodations, and other supports (like offering health insurance with adequate mental health coverage). Above all, the agency needs to be attuned to the needs of consumers who are employees.
Housing Options has learned that peer providers may encounter role conflict, interpersonal conflicts, and philosophical conflicts in the workplace. If these conflicts are not recognized and adequately and appropriately addressed, an agency will experience high rates of turnover among the peer provider staff. How to appropriately address conflict should be determined case-by-case, and in consultation with trained human resources or mediation professionals. Housing Options advises agencies to have experienced peer providers supervise new peer providers. Investing staff resources in supervising employees who are consumers is crucial to ensuring the success of consumer integration.
Promote Healthy Dialogue to Resolve Conflicts
Consumer integration is a transformative process that challenges old models and relationships. As with any organizational change, conflict may be part of the process. In particular, conflicts between consumer staff and others in the organization may arise. Conflicts may come up in unexpected ways, especially when others in the agency are not sensitive to the perspectives and experiences of consumer providers. It is important to remember that these conflicts are not unique to consumers.
An agency committed to consumer integration needs to be sensitive to these issues, and intervene in ways that make peer providers feel supported.
Supportive supervision provided by experienced staff members who are sensitive to these dynamics can help when working through such conflicts. In addition, team-building activities can help promote a workplace in which diversity and difference are valued.
Combat Biases Against Consumers
As peer providers gain status and power in the organization, they may encounter prejudice and bias from professionals inside and outside the agency. Few staff members are likely to have had experience working with consumers as colleagues. Professionals who are operating in a more traditional fashion may be perceived as controlling or paternalistic. They may be protective of their own turf at the expense of consumer employees. They may have prejudices and biases that need to be discussed and challenged. It is important to facilitate open discussions and to make efforts to educate staff on the benefits of consumer integration.
Providing peer employees with opportunities to consult with more experienced peer providers can help them sort out feelings and reactions. In addition, it is extremely important that staff members in supervisory positions over consumer employees are attuned to consumers’ particular needs. Staff members who supervise consumer employees should be given training on being sensitive to consumers’ lived experiences, and how to be culturally competent to work with peer providers. Supervisors can help consumer employees develop strategies for handling challenging interpersonal dynamics in a productive, professional manner. These strategies can be useful for all employees – in many ways, promoting consumer integration is about ensuring that the work environment is supportive of all employees.
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