Voices from the Field Blog: Reflections on Homeless Persons’ Memorial

by Lisa Sepahi
November 18, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Lisa Sephai details the significance of Homeless Persons Memorial Day that have been held annually since 1990 on the longest night of the year. These national events are aimed at raising awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and to remember individuals who have died on the streets.

Nancy* was 54 years old when she died of cancer. I first met Nancy at an overnight homeless shelter. She was bubbly and happy-go-lucky, her bright personality stood out despite her dire circumstances. Nancy spent the previous four years living on the streets after losing her job as an accountant. Shortly after I met Nancy, she was offered permanent housing through a Housing First program. 

This housing opportunity could not have come soon enough; shortly after becoming housed, Nancy learned that she had terminal cancer. Fortunately, Nancy was housed when she died, but the years on the streets had a significant impact on her health and her ability to seek the treatment that she needed to diagnose and treat her illness. Nancy's story is not unique; however, Nancy was fortunate to die in the comfort of her own home with her friends around her. Many people experiencing homelessness are not as fortunate and die on the streets.

It is for this reason that each year The National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board, and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council encourage communities to host public events on December 21 to remember those individuals in our communities who have died homeless in the past year.  Homeless Persons Memorial Day events have been held every year around the first day of winter and the longest night of year since 1990. 

Homeless Persons Memorial Day raises awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and serves to stand as a public memorial in recognition of friends and neighbors who have died on the streets. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides toolkits that include an organizing manual, posters, and fact sheet to help groups organize events every year.

According to The National Health Care for the Homeless Council:

  • Homelessness dramatically elevates one's risk of illness, injury, and death.
  • The average age of death of a person experiencing homelessness is about fifty years, the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900.
  • People experiencing homelessness suffer the same illnesses experienced by people with homes, but at rates three to six times higher.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness die on the streets from exposure to the cold.
  • Poor access to quality health care reduces the possibility of recovery from illnesses and injuries.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness die on the streets from unprovoked violence, also known as hate crimes.

Homeless Persons Memorial Day is an opportunity to bring attention to an every day tragedy. It stands as a testament to the vital importance that housing plays to the health, well-being, and safety of all people.

For more information on events in your area or if you are interesting in hosting your own event, visit: http://www.nhchc.org/resources/consumer/homeless-persons-memorial-day/ and http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2013-national-homeless-persons-memorial-day-
organizing-manual.pdf


*Name has been changed

Source: National Health Care for the Homeless Council (2006) "The Hard, Cold Facts About the Deaths of Homeless People" http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/HardColdFacts.pdf


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Voices from the Field: Responding to Holiday Triggers

by Katie Volk
October 22, 2013

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Year-round, we encourage providers to adopt a trauma-informed lens – to use knowledge of trauma and its impact to make decisions about all aspects of their relationships with clients and how they run their program.

During the holiday season, the need for a trauma-informed approach is critical. Everywhere we turn, we’re reminded that it is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” While for some that may be true, for others, the holiday season is wrought with triggers – songs, scents, rituals, pressure to conform to particular social and familial expectations, increased presence of alcohol, more interactions with family/friends. For those experiencing homelessness, the holidays may also serve as a reminder of what does not exist – a home in which to celebrate, cook, decorate, and rejoice. Loss, loneliness, and shame are powerful triggers.

So what can we do?

1. Think about how the holiday season impacts you, the service provider. Are you in a frenzy, hopping from turkey donations to a sudden influx of volunteers to clients in crisis? What are your own holiday triggers? Take time to notice your own responses.

2. Ask yourself “what helps and what hurts?” As you work with clients and your team, be aware in every instance, you have an opportunity to interact in a trauma-informed way. Asking “what helps and what hurts” can be a good “gut-check.” Sure, local honor society students may want to sponsor a gift-giving drive for the kids in your program, but ask yourself: Is that what the kids (and their parents) need right now? How could we set it up so that it doesn’t feel shaming? What could we do instead?

3. Plan now. Talk with your team and clients now about what the holidays may bring up for them. By being proactive, you are being trauma-informed. Even if clients have nothing to say, you have opened the door for conversation. And by talking to your team, you can be prepared as a staff to support one another and those you serve.

4. Pay attention to nutrition and exercise. Cookies, pies, and cake – oh my! Taking care of one’s body is good self-care advice no matter the season, but with additional stress and temptation everywhere, be more mindful about eating and exercise habits. Be sure to drink plenty of water. Indulge in sweets, caffeine, and alcohol in moderation. Go for a walk. Talk with clients about these habits too, as part of routine conversations on good self-care.

5. Create meaningful rituals. This is a great opportunity to involve clients. Let them be your guide. Ask yourself how to celebrate, with your team and your program, in ways that relieve stress rather than add to it.

6. Remember the principles of trauma-informed care. Healing happens in relationships. Recovery is possible. Support client control, choice, and autonomy. Learn more here.

From all of us at the Homelessness Resource Center, we wish you a healthy, safe, and joyful holiday season.

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Voices From the Field: Bearing Witness to Self-Sufficiency

by Kevin Lilly
September 24, 2013

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Youth homelessness is a major problem. There are many young people on the street on a given night with nowhere to go and no access to adequate shelter. That being said, with every social injustice in the world today, you have people who work tirelessly to fight for change. These activists don’t do this for any attention or reward, but because they want to see a difference and see an eventual end to a perpetual problem.  Bridge over Troubled Water (BOTW) is an organization that since its inception in the 1970’s has helped over 80,000 homeless and runaway youth out of the grips of poverty and into self-sufficiency. This shelter may look like an ordinary cozy house like its neighbors on the street, but the power within is something that you just need to visit for yourself to experience.

One of the case managers, Theresa Heisler known by everyone as “Terri”, a 23-year veteran, was gracious enough to give me a tour of the shelter. At this particular location, they deal with four primary groups of young adults: males, females, runaways, and young mothers with children. Each group has their own housing area, but they come together for community dinners and social events. When I arrived, I spent most of my time in the young mothers building. During the tour, I noticed the housing itself is well kept. Fridges are filled with healthy choices, and the mothers have a monthly trip to BJ’s, a wholesale warehouse grocery and retail store. The bedrooms are tidy and the young people are encouraged to keep the house clean and organized. I could go on about the housing itself, but the power of this shelter isn’t so much in the housing as much as it is the people in it.

These mothers are nothing short of amazing young women. As a young man I can’t imagine all the work that goes into raising a child. These young women also work (some working multiple jobs) and complete assigned house tasks and attend classes. It’s inspiring to hear their stories of survival to make it to where they are today. A few stories Terri told me were tough to hear. One mother shared that she had become homeless after an unfortunate incident forced her out of her family’s house. Then she lost custody of her son. She ended up coming to the BOTW shelter where she worked hard to get her son back. She continues to work 40+ hours a week at popular restaurant chain while enrolled in a BOTW GED program as well. This is one of many powerful stories that I came across in that shelter. These young people have been through a lot. As Terri put it, “It’s like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulder”. What I admire about all these young people is that although life has them on the ropes and is hitting them with everything it got, they continue to fight and endure.

What BOTW hopes to do is not only to offer these young people in need safe and adequate shelter, but to teach skills so that they could one day successfully make the transition from shelter to permanent housing. Young people staying in the shelter are encouraged to make preparations for independent living. They are assigned house tasks specifically to ensure they have a good foundation once they move out and will need to perform household duties in their own apartment. The shelter also provides the young people with resources to not only get on their feet, but have fun as well. Throughout the buildings, there are bulletin boards filled with information about free events, job postings, employment opportunities, as well as healthcare resources.

The staff members are incredible men and women. I didn’t get a chance to meet all of them but Terri, Cynthia, and Steve are three people who genuinely care and work tirelessly, to help young people. While some people might see these young people’s present circumstances alone, staff members at BOTW see their untapped potential. Shelter staff members are present 24 hours a day, and are really invested in these young people’s lives. As Terri put it, “We try to find out who they are, what they like, help them with their self esteem, and meet their goals so that one day these kids could have the life they dream about.”

While on the tour I came across an image that I feel does a great job in summing the program, the people, and the shelter. This image was a photo taken during a recent graduation. In the picture it shows one young mother smiling proudly in her cap and gown with her handsome son dressed up right by her side. The picture is just one of many successful stories that come out of this house. It shows that although the odds appear to be stacked, one can always overcome. This whole experience has made me even more grateful for the support system and opportunities I have in my life. It also energizes me to do more as far as being an advocate for unaccompanied homeless youth. As a young person I know I would not be where I am today had it not been for the great support system around me.

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Voices From the Field: Housing First Fixed in my Memory

by Lisa Sepahi
August 28, 2013

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I have been inspired by the many stories of the people who I have encountered in the nearly twenty years of working in the field. However, there is one story in particular that has motivated me over the last several years. Prior to joining my current employer I was the lead for homelessness strategic planning for a Continuum of Care. 

 

I met Martin* at a Project Homeless Connect event. Among all the hustle and bustle of people streaming in, seeking services, lining up for dental care, or signing up for legal aid, I saw Martin. He walked into the church community room with a gruff look on his face, paying no mind to anyone. Martin had wiry long blonde hair, which seemed to be growing out of control; he immediately sat right down to get his haircut. Within minutes he looked like a new man, as his demeanor changed and a smile began to grow on his face. It was at this moment that Martin became fixed in my memory.

 

Martin’s story became clearer when I saw him drinking on a picnic table near my office parking lot. At this point, I realized that Martin was living on a hill above my office. I would see him every day from my office window; the irony of this was not lost on me, as our offices housed not only myself-- charged with organizing a community-wide response to homelessness-- but the administrative offices for Health and Human Services. I eventually learned more about Martin through connections with the local day center providing case management. Martin was a Vietnam veteran; he had been homeless for over ten years and was suffering from substance use disorder. I also learned Martin’s routine by observing him out my window, where I noticed that he would spend much of his time during the day drinking at the picnic table. On days that I would not see him I would worry and call his case manager to learn that he was in jail or his tent had burned down. 

 

Although Martin was one of many individuals and families that I came to know over the years, Martin was a constant reminder of the need to do more to find permanent options for persons who are chronically homeless with substance abuse problems. Martin became the inspiration for the introduction of a new Housing First program. I was able to use Martin’s story and examples of the success of the Housing First model in other communities to secure funding for a program which would permanently house the most vulnerable chronically homeless individuals in the community with no conditions placed on sobriety or participation in services. 

 

Once the program was up and running it took some time for Martin to consider housing, but he is today successfully and happily housed. Martin has engaged more in services and has cut back on his drinking.  He still has a drink at the same picnic table, but at the end of the day he has a safe, stable foundation from which to continue to make positive changes in his life. 

 

*Martin’s name has been change to protect his identity.

 

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Nashville Changes Strategy to End Homelessness

by Steven Samra
August 06, 2013

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In 2005 Nashville joined many other cities in the development and implementation of a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, Nashville has, like many American cities, struggled to accomplish the goal. A cadre of obstacles and barriers, including, but certainly not limited to scarce resources, reliance on “readiness” as a precursor to obtaining housing, a closed Homeless Management Information System, lack of affordable units and housing vouchers, all contributed to the challenge of procuring housing.  A lack of coordination among area behavioral health providers exacerbated these challenges, and frustration and hopelessness were increasing within the homeless community with each passing year.  

Thanks to the efforts of a new Executive Director at the Nashville Metropolitan Homelessness Commission and a committed team of Commissioners, partners, and volunteers, a partnership with the 100,000 Homes Campaign, and a collaboration of several local providers and faith-based organizations, the situation appears to be changing for the better.  

On May 29-31, 2013, twenty teams comprised of over 100 community volunteers canvassed the streets and campsites of Nashville, Tennessee, using the Vulnerability Index to survey and create a priority list of individuals experiencing street homelessness who are most at risk of premature death if they remain homeless. The Vulnerability Index, created by Dr. Jim O’Connell, President of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program, identifies those who have been homeless the longest and are the most vulnerable. In addition to gathering the names, pictures, and dates of birth of individuals sleeping on the streets, the teams also captured data on their health status, institutional history (jail, prison, hospital, and military), length of homelessness, patterns of shelter use, and their previous housing histories.

A heavily attended community meeting was held on June 4, 2013, to discuss the results of the survey and kick off the start of a new campaign, “How’s Nashville”. The immediate goal of the campaign is to house 200 of the most vulnerable and chronically homeless into housing within 100 days. Once this is completed, How’s Nashville will continue the effort to house the city’s most vulnerable members with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness within the city by 2015.  Although using a Housing First approach is often more cost effective than alternate methods, and certainly more so than managing homelessness on the street, there are still costs associated with providing housing to those experiencing homelessness.  

Community members rose to the financial challenge associated with the campaign, donating $36,000 during the June meeting to help defray move-in costs associated with the transition from street to home.  Outreach workers began immediately moving individuals identified as high priority into housing at the end of the meeting, and invited attendees to walk with them to a welcome home celebration. Through the city’s efforts, one individual was identified as “most vulnerable” and was moved into housing after more than 7 years of life on the street.

The campaign is off to a strong start with 43 people successfully housed and supported during the month of June.  Conversely, from January to May 2013, just 19 people experiencing homelessness were placed into housing.  uly is also off to a solid start and should meet or exceed the minimum number of placements needed to meet the final housing goal of 200 people housed within 100 days.  

Nashville’s homeless population may finally have reason for optimism instead of pessimism.  There will continue to be challenges associated with scarce resources and the city’s approach is far from perfect.  Clearly however, Nashville has turned a corner and embraced a new approach that is proven to dramatically reduce homelessness.  With the momentum of the How’s Nashville campaign firmly pushing the effort forward, for the first time in many years, Nashville is housing those experiencing homelessness in a systematic, logical, and coordinated manner. The future appears brighter for the city’s most vulnerable residents than it has been for a very long time.

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From Different and Discredited to Valued and Hopeful

by Gloria Dickerson
July 03, 2013

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Sitting in my living room, sipping on a cup of “just right” coffee and glued to the television, I begin my morning’s laughing until it hurts. On this day, Steve Harvey ends his segment with an even more hilarious joke. And, I think to myself, “what a great start to the day!”

Excited for more hilarity, I was surprised when the program sudden shifts in tone from happiness to somberness. Noah, a 12 year-old, round-faced, handsome boy poised beyond his years is introduced. He quietly talks about what it is like to be deemed different and discredited—a target of bullying: “I was thinking of committing suicide after the kids kept bullying me. They called me ugly… I didn’t think anybody cared. I was going to kill myself on my 13th birthday. I thought to myself who ever said, ‘Words don’t hurt?’”

Steve asked Noah’s mother, “How is it to hear this from your son?” The sadness in her voice was as striking as her words, “I had no idea what he was going through. I found out when I received a call from one of his friend’s mother. This past weekend he had posted on his Instagram account that he was planning to commit suicide on his birthday. He also posted images of his arm where he has been cutting himself for the past two months. My heart sank. I knew I had to do something. We immediately took him to the hospital.”

His mother continued, “While waiting in the ER, I took to Facebook. Noah has been dealing with bullying for the past year. He has been feeling alone and left out, ostracized from old friends and a misfit among new kids. Noah is getting treatment, but he needs people to rally. Which is why I've created the website Letters for Noah and a Facebook Page.”

Noah continued, “Thousands of people I didn’t even know sent me cards and e-mails telling me to hang in there. I didn’t know people cared.” When he was asked why he wanted to tell his story, he said, “I wanted other people to know that they are not alone. Other people will help you!” 

Noah has turned his experience of victimization into one of empowerment. Strangers reached out to him with loving words. Their support helped Noah feel reconnected. Noah’s story reminds us of the power of receiving kind words. The support Noah received could be defined as a “holding environment”—a community of individuals who spoke with compassion and hope for his recovery that became nurturers who soothed his pain. Noah actively accepted this show of love and is now demonstrating how to use his story to help others. Stories can be a gift that keeps on giving by connecting us out of our isolation. Words of support by strangers created a loving community, a container of love that held and lessened this young boy’s pain. Noah’s story has the power to warm our hearts. I believe that suffering is diminished when we witness love in action. This kind of love is how stigma, hate, and fear are transformed.

Noah’s story is an example of the transformative and restorative power that hope and access to an inclusive community can provide. People who experience homelessness, mental illness, trauma, and/or substance use conditions are often met with stigma, discrimination, and prejudice—all of which are forms of bullying. Noah has shown us what helps. As strangers, professionals, and lay individuals, each of us can reach out, include others, show care, and share stories to form a community that provides a lifeline and roadmap to recovery. I believe that people are our greatest resource and source of healing and hope.

Additional Readings:
Chaudoir, S. R., Earnshaw, V. A., & Andel, S. (2013). “Discredited” Versus “Discreditable”: Understanding How Shared and Unique Stigma Mechanisms Affect Psychological and Physical Health Disparities. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35(1), 75-87.

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Homelessness Puts the Sin in “Sin City”

by Susan Milstrey Wells
May 21, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Susan Milstrey Wells shares her observations about the stark contrast between the opulence of Las Vegas, its citizens who are homeless, and her uneasiness about how to respond.

I recently returned from attending a conference in Las Vegas. It was my first trip to the aptly named Sin City, where every manner of decadent behavior is on display 24/7. It didn’t take me long to discover that Las Vegas isn’t my kind of town. I don’t drink, smoke, or gamble. I do love to shop, but the prices in Vegas are eye-popping. You can spend $400 to $800 a day on a pool cabana, complete with television and a private cocktail waitress. Or you can order a $1,000 sundae covered in 23K edible gold leaf served with an 18K gold spoon. You get to keep the spoon.

But you don’t have to look far, amid the opulence and the excess, to find the sadder, seamier side of Vegas. On every overpass, street corner, and grand entrance to an even grander hotel and casino are people whose luck has run out. People who are homeless in Las Vegas are in stark contrast to their surroundings. I’ve been in major cities—New York; Washington, DC; San Francisco. I’ve seen people who are homeless. But this time they really got to me.

After 25 years of writing about homelessness, I know that giving money to people I see on the streets isn’t a good idea. But I wanted to help. I wanted to give twice what he was asking to the man whose sign read, “Girlfriend locked in pay toilet; need 50 cents to free her.” I thought his creativity surely was worth $1. Or the man whose sign said simply, “Trust me, this sucks.” Undoubtedly his honesty was worth some help.

I kept my wallet closed, but I couldn’t get these people out of my mind. And a little bit of research revealed that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness, Las Vegas has the fifth largest number of homeless people in the country, at more than 8,700. Nearly 65 percent of these individuals are unsheltered, but many of them you never see.

In his book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, author Matthew O’Brien tells the story of people who live in the tunnels under the Las Vegas strip. Built to protect the desert from flash floods, they are now home to people like Steve, who moved underground after a drug problem left him homeless. Profiled by ABC’s Nightline program in 2009, Steve said he got clean when he met his fiancée, Katherine. Steve and Katherine slept by day—under Caesars Palace, where my room cost $200 a night. They played the slots in the evening, sometimes earning as much as $50 a day.

But the casinos are always the big winners. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, in the first two months of this year alone, gaming revenue on the Las Vegas Strip was $1.2 billion. In 2012, the average visitor stayed three nights and wagered $485. This is in a city where the per capita annual income (in 2011 dollars) was $26,755 and 15 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Perhaps things are getting better. In 2006, Las Vegas enacted its 10-year plan to end homelessness. And the city saw the third largest decrease in homelessness between 2011 and 2012, according to HUD.

Clearly, I don’t have any answers. And I’m not pure of heart. While in Vegas, I luxuriated in a bathroom that was as big as my bedroom back home. I fell in love with a $400 purse that I almost bought. But I wish I’d given a dollar, or maybe two, to the man who needed to free his girlfriend from the restroom. Mostly, I wish I’d had the courage, and the humanity, to look him in the eye and smile.

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I Am Not My Diagnosis

by Melissa Cogswell
April 22, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Melissa Cogswell shares her personal experience with mental illness—her struggles, her strength, and her realization that having a diagnosis does not mean that you are the diagnosis.

I have bipolar disorder.
 
It has taken me ten years, numerous doctors and therapists, many medications, countless relationships, and too many cycles through mania and depression to count (or even remember) to realize that I HAVE bipolar, not that I AM bipolar.
 
I was first diagnosed when I was nineteen. I was informed that I was bipolar and that if I wasn’t heavily medicated, I would kill myself. It felt like a death sentence; at least if I committed suicide, I would have some level of control. After I began the medications, I went from being a driven, curious, academically inclined person to a lump that slept twenty hours a day. I couldn’t read; I couldn’t think; I could barely focus to watch a 30-minute sitcom on TV.
 
I knew that I couldn’t handle a life I wasn’t living, so I stopped seeing the doctor. I stopped taking the medications. I began to self-medicate. I spent years cycling through mania and depression, occasionally seeking help from a doctor whose first inclination was to medicate me. No one wanted to hear what I wanted. I felt that, because I was ill, what I wanted didn’t matter. The doctors “knew” what was best for me. I had to obey or not receive treatment. I opted not to seek treatment.
 
In the summer of 2008, I found myself in the emergency room after being sexually assaulted. I was manic and I was scared. I asked for a doctor and I asked for medication; both were provided to me. I immediately liked Dr. S. She wanted to hear how I felt and not just prescribe me drugs. She listened to me. She didn’t just want to talk about my illness. In her office I talked about my hopes, my dreams, my goals, and my relationships. In her office I realized that I wasn’t my illness. My illness was, and always will be, a part of me, but it does not define me.
 
After several months working with Dr. S and taking medication I realized that it was not what I wanted. The drugs kept me from cycling, dulled my thinking, and had other impacts on my life that I wasn’t comfortable with. With trepidation, I asked her if we could begin to work towards managing my illness without medication. After listening to me explain how I felt I could manage my illness with the coping skills we had identified in our time together, she readily agreed.  She understood that this was my life and my illness, and it was her job to help me implement the choices that I felt were best for me.
 
Dr. S. helped me understand that I am not bipolar, but instead that I have bipolar disorder. She was the first doctor I worked with who understood that I was not my illness; that I had my own hopes, dreams, and goals; and, just like people without mental illness, I am allowed to decide what is best for me.
 
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I Could Look People in the Eye

by Donna Wilbur
March 29, 2013

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Donna Wilbur collaborates with Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Wendy Grace Evans-Dittmer to share her personal recovery experience. In this blog, Donna recounts how, with the support she received along the way, she can now “Look People in the Eye.”

I work at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University as a teacher. At first, I volunteered to teach a typing class. As I received positive reviews, I slowly began to fill in for other teachers who were out on leave or taking time off. After three years, I was offered the opportunity to teach a number of courses, including a computer course, Social Security Income courses, and a Navigating Recovery course that is comparable to developing a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

The Navigating Recovery course was comprised of developing an understanding of fitness, as well as learning the importance of connectedness and wellness. While I don't like to disclose on a regular basis, I choose to disclose when it will be beneficial because I believe that disability needs to be valued.

I was trained by Marilyn Copeland in Vermont and have worked at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation for 13 years. Currently, I live and work as the House Manager at a women’s lodging house. All of the women in the house have psychiatric symptoms. They all work in professional careers and choose to live in the house where they receive support for their demanding lives. I have a third job working with a young adult man who has severe disabilities, which include hearing voices, obsessive compulsive disorder, and paranoid delusions.

I had my own darkest days before I entered the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation's Training for the Future course and began my recovery. I never thought that I could finish the program, but my father and my best friend supported me through this time. Prior to entering the program I had been on disability for ten years, had posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, suffered from bipolar disorder, and was receiving trauma therapy. It was through my therapy that I learned of Bessel Van der Kolk's work at The Trauma Center in Boston. I went through several hospitalizations prior to enrolling in Training for the Future, but eventually completed my B.S.W. at Bridgewater State College with assistance from Massachusetts Rehabilitation, who helped me with the cost of books and transportation. Additionally, they paid for half of the cost of enrolling in Training for the Future, while Social Security, through the PASS program, covered the other half. I use much of this training at the Center now.

With the aid of a service dog—a miniature, wire-haired dachshund—I am able to get out of bed in the morning; she helps me not to disassociate. Lee Walmack, a mentor, once said when I thought I could not finish my program, "I hope you dance." When I think of where I am today, and where I have been, I know that I am able to dance. At that time I had no confidence, but by the end I could look people in the eye. I had hope.

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Where did you sleep last night?

by Rachael Kenney
March 04, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Rachael R. Kenney recently volunteered for Denver’s annual point-in-time homeless count. In this blog, she recounts her experience and the important lessons she learned when she asked, “Where did you sleep last night?”

Did I really want to do this again? Two years ago I volunteered for Denver’s homeless count. I was stationed in an administrative building and the staff were all in a training that day so my volunteer partner and I only handed out one survey for the entire four-hour shift. I longed for my experience at the Boston count a few years prior, where volunteers take to the street on foot and in vehicles. We didn’t see anyone then, either, but at least it was a change of scenery. But I’ve been meaning to get more involved locally and they say that the best time is the present, so I signed up. I was pleasantly surprised.

We set up at a folding table in the hallway of an administrative building. Instead of us playing the role of eager young salespeople, nearly everyone who passed approached us to ask what we were up to. My partners and I would explain the homeless count and, much to my surprise, the person would usually sit down to talk with us, including: the nervous man who I was certain would say that he had housing—he didn’t; the young woman whose daughter was bouncing in her stroller—I wondered if offering her fruit snacks was a good idea; and the smiling young man whose son wore sweatpants and sweet little sneakers.

There were two people who stood out and tugged at my heart. The first was an elderly woman who was hearing impaired and didn’t have hearing aids. I’m hearing impaired and the thought of going without aids is scary, even just “thank you, please come again” can spiral into a stressful experience. Rather than read her the survey like we were trained to do, we handed it to her to fill out on her own. She told us about her day as she carefully checked off the boxes. When she reached the end she couldn’t remember what city she was in the night before and began to cry. I wanted so badly to walk around the table and hug her, but I didn’t think that was appropriate and I just sat there.

The second person was a man in his mid-30s. His sly smile and lanky gait reminded me of a goofy friend on a sitcom. He told us that he was supposed to check into detox that morning but he wasn’t clean so he needed to wait. It amazes me that, even though I’ve worked so hard to break down my stereotypes, it still knocks me off guard when someone is high and communicates so well; these beliefs are such a deep part of our psyches. He made an inappropriate joke; we all laughed. He was trying to get clean to be with his family; we all cried inside. He seemed genuine about wanting to change. We rooted for him as he strolled out into the cold and hoped that we were right.

Almost everyone I spoke to that day fit somewhere on the spectrum of homelessness. I reflected on the fact that I was only two miles from home in an affluent town that doesn’t seem to know poverty, yet here I was, surrounded by it. These were people who I wouldn’t give a second thought to if they were in line behind me in the grocery store or strolling past as I walked the dog. The afternoon was a stark reminder of the importance of open mindedness, of providing a spectrum of services, and of how important it is to ask the question, “Where did you sleep last night?”

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Category: Guest Entry