A Place To Start Brings Care and Comfort to Forgotten Lives

Posted on June 14, 2011

This week’s blog was written by Dr. Jeannette Schoonmaker, a psychiatrist with Virginia Supportive Housing’s program A Place To Start.

I’ve worked in many places. I have a good deal of experience with mental health services in many different forms. So my coming to A Place To Start was because I saw it as being more efficient, more comprehensive, and a better program than others. The major difference we have is the piece where we provide housing at the outset of the program.

Providing housing up-front as quickly as we can brings us the opportunity to have people where we can find them, hopefully day after day. We can start to access what their needs are and start to build a relationship with them. If you don’t have housing, so many obstacles pop up. For instance, if you’re trying to make an appointment with social services, odds are they’re going to ask for your address, and you’re not going to have one. So you need a place to get mail, and transportation too. It’s amazing, the basic needs that can’t be met without an address, an ID card, and a birth certificate. If you don’t have a birth certificate, you can’t get an ID card. If you don’t have an ID card, you might not be able to go to the Daily Planet and get clothes or a shower. So many basic services rely on these three essentials, plus transportation. We come in at the ground level and start with basics. Once we’ve got those established, we focus on the things clients have not been able to access or may need, like medical or psychiatric services.

Bad luck is an equal-opportunity handicap. And if you talk to our clients, they’ve had bad luck at every different stage of their lives. But nobody chooses to be homeless. If you’re in a shelter, you’re out at 5 or 6 walking around all day and trying not to be noticed. It’s a long day to walk around and try to be invisible. Homeless people try not to be noticed because other people are often not comfortable around them, and often policemen will arrest them for “trespassing”. When you’re on the street you’re not safe. And you certainly aren’t feeling secure when you’re wandering trying to stay out of everyone’s way all day long and hoping you can find somewhere to sleep.

In this program, it takes a lot of contact with clients. We need to convince them, for one thing, that this program isn’t like all the others, where you get dropped for missing one appointment, or when you give your info and they say, “We’ll call you”. What homeless person has a phone with minutes on it? That’s one of the advantages of our program, we have enough manpower to truly take care of and service people’s needs. We can stay with them, make things happen for them, and build that sense of trust, that trust that there is something better to be had.

Some of the people we see have been not treated effectively, and we have to try to get in there and make that better. And if they’re reluctant to take their medication, we’ll go to their apartments and help them take it there. We all become family pretty quickly. A lot of these patients, they do not have a lot of family support left, so we tend to fill in and help them learn to use community resources. So there’s a lot of educating, a lot of walking with people to help them find resources.

One thing that’s different about our program, again, is that we stay with the person, we don’t give up. We are very persistent and very sincere in saying we will not give up, we will stay here with you. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has bad luck, everyone makes poor choices, and there are consequences. But we’ll be with you through that. We don’t walk away when things get tough. And I think that constancy of availability of someone to be with you and listen and try to be helpful is crucially important. And that’s something I’ve seen more in VSH than in other places I’ve worked.

It’s probably because we have that access at the housing level to get them set up, with furniture, with groceries, with medication. So it becomes more comprehensive and more effective. Case managers are out every day picking up clients, bringing them here and to social services, to the food bank, wherever. Whatever it takes. A while back, one of our clients became interested in computers. So our clinician spent a day with him going to Best Buy, picking out a computer, and helping set it up. And that’s the ultimate goal, that we can get them out there, teach them, and watch them fly off. After 3 years, we’ve got 2-3 in school, probably 6 working part time, and others who are volunteering and want to work. Folks just want to get back in the mainstream.

The thing that makes my day, is when I’ve seen people come into the program who are really desperately depressed, hopeless, and don’t know where to turn. And in a few months, I can ask them how they’re doing, and they say, “I’m happy. Life is good.” That’s flat-out amazing.

APTS is a good program, and it works, and I hope we can have more and more people come into it. Hopefully, there will be more and more people in the area not having to look forward to another day on the park bench, wondering where they’re going to be tomorrow.

To learn more about how A Place To Start helps its clients and its community, click here

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