Counterpoint Winter 2018 • News • Page 1
RANDOLPH – Twenty years ago, a unique collaboration was born here: a home that was run by psychiatric survivors with clinical support by a community mental health agency and family member volunteers.
Safe Haven was a federally funded national program for homeless adults struggling with mental health stability.
What made it different from the other programs was that the support staff in the residence were hired and supervised by Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, clinicians came from the Clara Martin Center, and other support was provided by NAMI Vermont.
It was a time before the term “peer support” was in common use, and despite many other changes over the years, that core piece has remained the same. The four individuals who operate the home are known as recovery staff, and all identify themselves as having lived experience with a mental illness.
Two of the current staff were once guests at Safe Haven. In all, 166 guests have come through the doors of the large, Victorian-style home, staying an average of seven to eight months with a primary goal of finding long-term stable housing.
Stable housing, for Alex DeLeon, means that he is still living in the same apartment that he found 14 years ago with the help he received at Safe Haven. He said that for many years, he supported himself through the disability income he received based on his diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Five years ago, he heard there was a job opening at Safe Haven and applied.
“Helping others has helped me,” he said in a recent interview with Counterpoint.
At Safe Haven, “you’re helping people out. You’re there for people, to listen,” DeLeon said. “That helps you, too.”
Rick Braun has also worked at Safe Haven for the past five years and believes his experience with depression and alcoholism helps him to connect with the guests.
“They don’t feel they’re alone in their struggle,” he told Counterpoint. “It makes the journey a little bit easier. You need other people.”
Vermont Psychiatric Survivors ended its affiliation with Safe Haven four years ago to reduce administrative costs after Clara Martin committed to continuing to hire peer staff, and NAMI Vermont slowly dropped out of its involvement over the years.
The federal government also dropped out just a year ago, ending its funding for Safe Haven programs around the country. The Department of Mental Health paid to keep it running in Vermont.
Visiting the home has much the same feel as it did after it opened to great acclaim 20 years ago. Sen. Patrick Leahy was on hand for the ribbon cutting, which was documented in a photo taken by Counterpoint that hangs on a wall in the home and was on display at a picnic this summer to celebrate the anniversary.
On a recent day, the smell of a roast filled the kitchen. The recovery staff cook dinner and generally oversee the residence, but the most important role, Braun explained, is that “I try to be there for them. I try to encourage them.”
He said that he thinks leading by example is the key.
“To see someone who survived” helps to give residents hope, he said. “You have to persevere, stick it out, it will get better,” he said he tells them.
“I’m able to be a little more empathetic” because of personal knowledge of the same experiences, he said, in particular for residents who are still drinking when they arrive at Safe Haven.
Braun, who is 53 and was born here, said he suffered from depression “quite a bit of my teen life” and turned to drinking. He became sober 30 years ago, he said, but then started drinking again in 2008 after hitting several traumatic events in life.
The former licensed practical nurse lost his job at a nursing home and saw his relationship with his children, in their young teens at the time, suffer, he said.
“Things were really bad.”
He was hospitalized for his depression several times, and when he was discharged from his last hospitalization at Rutland Regional Medical Center “my main goal at that point was establishing a support system.”
That system became the Clara Martin Center, Alcoholics Anonymous, and friends at his church after he “came home to religion,” Braun said. He “put the cork in the bottle” in August 2012.
A year and a half later, a friend introduced him to the job opportunity at Safe Haven, and working there “just gets better and better,” he said. “I believe in making progress even in small steps.” He said he stopped smoking “1,031 days ago.”
Braun said he tries to keep “an attitude of gratitude” and recognizes how fortunate he has been. “I don’t take that for granted.”
He now feels things like serenity and peace; “I never thought I would feel them again. I feel things like hope, where before, I felt no hope.
“I like doing what I’m doing,” Braun said. “No one is immune to problems.”
DeLeon “had nowhere to go; nowhere to live” when a case manager referred him to Safe Haven in 2004. Then 24, he had been drifting for several years after a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
He was hearing voices, and “stable work wasn’t really happening.” He left a ski clerk job at Killington – a job he took primarily for the snowboarding opportunities – and then moved to New Mexico and worked off and on for his father there.
That situation fell through, DeLeon said, and he was living homeless and coping with symptoms until ending up for six months at a Las Vegas Medical Center program, which helped some.
From there, it was back to Vermont, and then Safe Haven. The crucial help he received was in finding housing, he said. He left Safe Haven 14 years ago “to this apartment,” he said, sitting in his living room for the interview.
After five years collecting Social Security and no longer having mental health symptoms, he decided, “I wouldn’t mind getting a job and working.”
DeLeon said that having a disability and having been homeless means he can relate to the guests at Safe Haven. “I know what I’ve been through,” and it “helps [me] understand their situation.”
Although he doesn’t share his personal story directly, residents know why he is working there, he said.
DeLeon said he tells the guests, “It’s about accepting your disability, and this is what you can do to help you get through it, to be mentally stable.”
He finds personal support through living in an accepting community, he said.
“That’s what’s great” about Randolph, he said. “It’s good to have a caring community. That’s why I’ve been able to live here so long.
“It goes to show [that] even with a diagnosis of a disability you can still be a part of a community. You can still function.
“You don’t have to be in and out of hospitals. It’s not like you’re at a dead end. You can still lead a normal life.”