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Peer specialists walk with people as they step from homelessness into stability

Amanda Fowler supervises peer specialists

As permanent supportive housing coordinator at Donna Hanson Haven (DHH), Amanda Fowler considers her work a calling.

She hopes she can help make it, as Bishop Emeritus William Skylstad said at its opening in December 2017, “a dwelling place of love.”

Part of Amanda’s job is working with three peer specialists who have had life-altering experiences related to homelessness.  They support individuals who have been chronically homeless and struggle with issues such as mental illness, psychological trauma and substance abuse.

The building is named after Donna Hanson, former executive director of Catholic Charities in Spokane, who dictated messages of love and gratitude before her death.  In a Sept. 24, 2005, Spokesman Review article, staff writer Virginia De Leon wrote, “As the Diocese of Spokane’s secretary for social ministries and the CEO of the largest faith-based social service organization between Seattle and Minneapolis, Donna was recognized as a courageous leader, a champion for social justice and a Mother Teresa-like figure who became just as anxious over a malnourished child in Africa as she did when her own granddaughter had the flu.”

Clients at DHH meet the chronic homelessness standards set out by Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Acceptance is based on length of homelessness and acuity scores through Spokane’s singles coordinated housing assessment.  Those most in need are accepted.  The average length of homelessness for referrals has been 10.5 years.  The 50 units at Donna Hanson Haven are filled.

Research shows that permanent supportive housing is the best way to help people move from the streets, overcome barriers, and progress into a successful life, said Amanda. 

DHH partners with Excelsior Youth Center in Spokane.  Onsite services for mental health and chemical dependency are planned. Bible study is offered, and a priest is available for support.

“At our facility, peer specialists are the bridge between homelessness and stability.  With their help, personal success for the residents is possible by connecting clients to case managers and to the services that are available in the program,” Amanda said.

They also help clients with basic life skills, such as doing dishes, storing food in refrigerators, being a good neighbor and recovering from “housing guilt.” 

“Residents may feel guilty leaving friends who are still living on the streets,” she said.  “In the beginning, living here can be isolating.  Peer specialists help each individual build community while checking to make sure they aren’t withdrawing.”

Amanda has a bachelor’s degree in social work and plans to complete her master’s degree this summer. She has worked with the homeless population for five years. 

Beginning with outreach in Walla Walla, she went into case management with Volunteers of America’s Health, Housing and Homeless program serving the medically vulnerable homeless population.  Then she became care coordinator for the House of Charity in Spokane. 

Growing up in a family who lived in poverty and suffered with mental illness, she knows what it’s like to be ostracized by those who consider poverty to be a personal failing.  Amanda said her French, Irish and Spanish heritages did not have a strong influence, but her family poverty culture did influence her life.

“My family was poor growing up but we had a strong sense of community with those around us, and everyone did their best to support everyone else in times of need.  They all helped to instill the value of giving back and taking care of those who are the most vulnerable in the community,” she said.

“Poverty and homelessness are complicated issues,” she said.  “On the streets, dodging threats of weather, rape, abuse, violence, addiction, incarceration and hunger were everyday modes of life for residents who now live at DHH.

“However,” Amanda said, “life doesn’t have to end that way.  With the steadfast help from those who care, Bishop Skylstad’s prayer is becoming a reality.”

Multiple issues can have a snowball effect on an individual, making existence debilitating.  Residents at Donna Hanson Haven realize no one knows this better than a peer specialist, who becomes the stepping stone into a better life for the client.

Service providers help individuals with mental health issues, help residents pay rent on time and understand their rights and responsibilities, and help people with chronic illnesses manage their care to keep them out of hospitals or nursing homes. 

The multiple tasks service providers perform add up to individuals reconnecting with society in a healthy way, Amanda said.

“A decent and productive life filled with love is meant for these residents.  Away from danger, a new journey begins,” she said.  “Service providers help reconnect clients to families.  Some will obtain jobs while others may move into their own place.”

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, supportive housing achieves better housing stability than case management without rental assistance.  This type of housing can reduce the use of other costly systems, especially emergency health care and corrections, Amanda said. 

People with disabilities who live in supportive housing after release from jail or prison were 61 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated one year later than those not offered supportive housing, she added. 

One reason the program is effective is that the peer specialists have understanding from personal experiences.

Like so many in the world who have their own stories to tell, a peer specialist’s “quiet, yet extraordinary life, infused with love and gratitude, exemplifies grace freely given,” Amanda added.

For information, call 960-8092 or 290-9217, or email afowler@ccspokane.org.





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