The ‘Finding Shelter through Peer Support’ (FSPS) project is successfully merging the concept of peer support (as rooted in the mental health and substance abuse realms) with the approach of ‘wraparound’ services and tenancy preservation in the housing world. Through FSPS, individuals who themselves have experienced living without shelter (among a variety of other challenges in life) are trained and partnered with buildings that commonly house people who have been homeless and/or are at risk of becoming homeless. Their job then becomes to offer support to access community resources (particularly when struggling with issues that might threaten their tenancy), advocate at housing court, assist with conflict mediation (between tenants and property management and/or between tenants themselves), and help build the kind of ‘sense of community’ than can ease and improve everyone's living experience.
Although FSPS is intended to be flexible enough to offer support around any issue that might be impeding someone’s housing success and satisfaction, it’s no secret that a substantial number of people who struggle with housing and/or are living in poverty also have experience with trauma, emotional distress, and psychiatric diagnosis, as well as a variety of other healthcare issues. Similarly, anyone who has been homeless could detail the numbers of ways in which living without shelter contributes to, exacerbates or even creates the conditions for extreme emotional distress and/or physical illness and injury. Thus, peer supporters often find that people living under these sorts of circumstances frequently have unmet emotional and physical health needs, and are well-trained to connect them with the applicable resources.
Often, for people who have been homeless, all other needs have paled in comparison to the one for shelter and sustenance. However, medical and other health-related complications that can result from neglect can contribute to a vicious circle that makes sustaining housing all the more difficult. The truth is that, on top of all the energy required to find a place to safely stay, people often simply do not have the necessary information on how to access various resources, including (in far too many instances) basic health insurance. Through FSPS, peer supporters are trained to listen for such missing links, and use their own personal experience (as well as that which has been learned on the job) to help people navigate the sometimes complicated paths to getting these issues addressed.
Although peer supporters should always be paid a substantial wage that ensures their own needs are consistently met, funding peer support is often significantly less expensive that other professions. Additionally, preventative care is almost always a notable cost savings over emergency services (including ambulances and emergency rooms), and peer supporters can be instrumental in connecting people to just that sort of resource.
Peer support has rapidly grown in popularity in the mental health and substance abuse fields. However, these systems all too often remain siloed in spite of the fact that (as Audre Lorde has pointed out), "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” FSPS seeks to reach beyond the bounds of a 'one issue' model to integrate a peer support approach and see people as whole people with a variety of challenges. It is one of the first efforts of its kind. It recognizes the importance of meeting people's basic needs, and the fundamental challenges they may have in doing so, while raising up the voice and expertise of people who have 'been there.'
FSPS is a part of the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community (RLC). The RLC has existed since 2007 and has become an international leader in developing peer-to-peer support approaches, producing related educational materials, and training others to replicate their efforts. The coordinator of this project, Earl Miller, has already won an award for his leadership in this area, and is working with a number of other organizations to expand and replicate these efforts.
Currently, FSPS works most actively with Arise for Social Justice, Home City Housing, and the Rainville in Springfield, Massachusets to offer peer support for individuals who are struggling with finding and maintaining shelter and other related issues. Regular funds are provided and paid monthly to sustain existing supports, and conversations about expansion with these and other organizations are underway.
Fortunately, it requires minimal dollars (as little as $500 per month) to initiate peer support in a given setting (of particular note given the fact that the impact of even a few hours per week can be immense on individual and community wellbeing). Often, property management companies themselves are willing to consider direct payment of peer supports because their presence ultimately makes the property manager's job so much easier. Although outside dollars are useful in the relationship-building, 'proving value', and training process, often this type of project can be sustained simply through development of local relationships. We've also learned that interest in expansion tends to happen naturally through word-of-mouth, membership on various community-focused committees, and the relationships that tend to develop simply as a part of doing the work.
This effort began in the spring of 2015 with ‘The Rainville’, a 46-unit building designed specifically to create permanent housing options for individuals who have been homeless. Since peer support began to be offered at the Rainville, eviction rates have dropped by over 80%, 100% of the building’s residents have health insurance (as compared to only about 60% when the relationship began), over a dozen mediations have been conducted, and 15 people have been connected to visiting nurses for essential medical care. Community-building events have been re-introduced, previously neglected requests for accommodations have been addressed, and individuals have been connected to a variety of resources (including the RLC’s Springfield-based community center only about a mile away).