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Housing Options Made Easy: Peer-Run Supportive Housing for Families
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Housing Options Made Easy (HOME), founded in 1990, provides supportive housing to both rural and urban communities in Western New York. Executive Director, Joe Woodward, and Training Coordinator, Laura Bentley speak about the unique values and support provided by this peer-run organization. Transparency is an essential quality for all staff at HOME and is a critical component of their community culture.
“Here you can be totally transparent and vulnerable. You don’t have to hide who you are. Your life and your work intertwine and everyone knows that everyone else has a mental health diagnosis. We have developed policies and procedures to address those issues. I have had many people come up to me and say that they wish they could be as open as I am,” says Joe Woodward, Executive Director of Housing Options Made Easy in Western New York.

Housing Options Made Easy (HOME) provides supportive housing to individuals and families who have mental illness. They operate in six counties, serving both rural and urban communities, and are a model of highly successful consumer integration.  Fifty-one percent of the Board of Directors is comprised of people who are in recovery from mental illness or are in treatment. The same is true for staff members. All but two staff members receive mental health services.

HOME has been a peer-run organization since the very beginning, when it was founded in 1990.

“Being who you are is important to us. To get the job, you have to be willing to be open about having a mental illness. I have to be a role model for the rest of the community so I can assist other people,” explains Joe, who has an anxiety disorder.

HOME’s peer advocates offer deep understanding and empathy to the people they serve. They each know the system and have been there themselves. They know how to link people to Medicaid services, work with doctors, and find safe and affordable housing.

Peer means equal. Equality is at the heart of HOME’s philosophy and mission. “We do not take an authority stance with the people that we serve,” says Joe. Peer advocates are trained to develop person centered plans. They work with people to understand their self-identified goals and how to best help them meet those goals.

Building relationships within the communities they serve is one of the greatest assets of this peer-run program. “I think people gain recovery through the relationships they have,” explains Joe.

HOME is committed to providing support to all staff members with an innovative model of personal time off. The traditional benefits package distinguishes between sick time, personal time, and vacation time. In contrast, with personal time off, staff members who need time off can do so without the stigma of explaining and justifying why. There is a level of trust and respect that works for everyone. “In three and a half years I have never denied a person time off,” says Joe. The agency contracts with an outside human resources agency, and also offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Laura Bentley is HOME’s Training Coordinator. Her story illustrates the power of the organization’s peer-run model. Laura grew up in poverty, in a family with multiple mental health diagnoses and little support. As an adult, she learned about the Peer-Advocacy Trainings offered by HOME when she was going through a difficult time following a divorce. For months she drove an hour every day to attend trainings. Since then she has move from a peer advocate working out of her car, to team leader, and now she is the organization’s Training Coordinator.

Laura trains peer advocates and new staff at HOME. She works hard to ensure that the peer advocacy and empowerment training curriculum keeps pace with new developments in the field and has been involved in state initiatives. Laura also helps train staff to assist people transitioning from inpatient psychiatric care to the community. “Laura will do whatever it takes. She has been a tremendous resource in other counties when we are short-staffed,” explains Joe.  

Laura is particularly sensitive to the needs of families that are struggling with mental illness. “We put a lot of emphasis on the fact that families matter and we work with people on creating family supports whenever possible. We put people first. What matters is serving clients and everything else is secondary to that,” says Laura.

Laura encourages anyone interested in learning about Peer-Advocacy Training opportunities for peer specialists to visit Housing Options Made Easy’s training webpage. Depending on need and resources, stipends may be available to defray the cost of attendance. HOME also provides assistance with transportation to trainings. For more information, contact Laura Bentley at (716) 532-5508, ext. 108.

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