This article is part of a quarterly series giving voice to the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences as they share their opinions on a particular topic. The authors of this column facilitated a focus group of their peers to inform this writing. The authors are served by Services for the UnderServed (S:US) a New York City-based nonprofit that is committed to giving every New Yorker the tools they can use to lead a life of purpose.
Eight of us, all tenants of various supported housing residences run by Services for the UnderServed, sat together one afternoon to share our thoughts about how supported housing has impacted our recovery, for better or for worse. All of the quotes in this piece represent sentiments expressed directly by one of us.
Each of us has experienced mental health, substance use, trauma, or other challenges, including unstable housing. It was clear from our conversation that, given our different life journeys, recovery means different things to each of us. Still, we came together in defining recovery as the process of sustaining good physical and mental health, attaining our goals, and reaching the milestones we have set for ourselves.
Our individual stories are diverse, but through our discussion we drew some conclusions about the value, as well as the challenges, of supported housing in our recovery.
How Supported Housing Contributes to Our Recovery
The guidance of supportive, non-judgmental staff is critical.
“One person who has played a big part in my life is my former case worker. From that day that I began living in supported housing, she was my backbone, my rock […] I utilized everyone in that office. Everyone, even the receptionist, heard from me […] I just love the staff. They have helped me, and are still helping me to this day, with so much.”
One of the most helpful aspects of supported housing is the staff who work with us. Our case workers often become our biggest support systems, listening and linking us to tools we can use to guide our own lives. When they listen without judgment, we know we can say whatever needs to be said and be honest with ourselves, and with them. Case workers are crucial to our recovery. Staff help us see opportunities and they help us identify resources, such as job training and educational programs. All of this helps create healthy foundations that lead to increased independence.
Having our own physical space gives us comfort and strength.
“During my homelessness, I was working full-time and desperately needed therapy. I had to hold a lot together on the outside, and supported housing gave me a private place to cry.”
We are often juggling many different stressful aspects of life at one time, so there is something extremely comforting about coming to a place that really is home. As individuals who have struggled to maintain stable housing in the past, the safe physical space provided by supported housing is extremely powerful. Living spaces are very personal, and a home is one of the few places where we can express our vulnerability. This helps relieve stress and gives us much-needed space for rest, reflection, and healing.
A positive, pleasing atmosphere has a big impact.
“I feel very lucky where I live. I can open my window at night and hear people laughing. The fact that I live somewhere where people actually talk to each other and laugh makes me feel good.”
Many of us expressed appreciation for the physical beauty and uplifting atmosphere of our buildings. Some of us live in residences that include urban farming spaces run by SUS. These spaces not only beautify the grounds of the buildings, but provide a therapeutic outlet for us through gardening and farming. Supportive, positive features like this add to our sense of comfort and safety.
The Challenges of Supported Housing
Staff changes are difficult.
“I don’t want to meet another case worker […] I don’t want to start sharing my life again with another person […] I might not take well to them.”
The support of staff in our residences is vital, and building genuine trust with staff helps us make real progress in our recovery and health. When the staff we have grown to trust leave their jobs, it is difficult to adjust. Once an honest, comfortable relationship with a specific staff member has been established, it feels like something vital to our recovery is being taken away when they leave. This can be a real roadblock to healing and recovery and it’s frustrating to feel like we have to start all over again with a new case worker.
Staff also have different approaches to interacting with us. For instance, when a staff member tells us, “You have to be at this meeting,” in an authoritative way, that can be very off-putting and uncomfortable. But when a staff member treats us with respect and says, “You might want to come to this meeting because there will be some good information for you here,” we know our choices and independence are being respected. While we have to learn to adapt, we find that we feel most comfortable and open with those who have lived experiences—our peers who can relate to many of our challenges.
Shared living spaces and new neighborhoods can be challenging.
“Right now, my apartment is just a bed to me. I want it to be a home.”
Having a roommate can be very challenging, especially when it’s not a match made in heaven. As tenants, we are unable to control many of the circumstances around us, such as the behavior of our roommates, those in surrounding apartments, and what takes place in the hallways or outside. Unfortunately, these things can impact our sense of safety and comfort in the spaces where we live. The good thing about housing with supports is that we have access to resources that can address challenges like these.
Things that are out of our control cause anxiety.
Many of us are very aware of the fact that our supported apartments are managed by a nonprofit organization that is dependent on funding to support its services. In the current political climate, we know that social supports are vulnerable and could be hit by funding cuts. This sense that our lives are fundamentally influenced by things outside of our control creates a feeling of unease and instability. Sometimes it feels like the rug could be pulled out from under us at any moment.
While we differ in the specifics of our experiences with supported housing, our discussion revealed that, for the majority of us, supported housing has impacted our lives, and our recovery, in overwhelmingly positive ways. One of us talked about how important it has been to have staff to talk to when family is unavailable or absent in our lives. Another of us, challenged by dissociative identity disorder, expressed the immense peace that comes with the stability of housing with supports and knowing that “no matter who I am, I have some place to be.” Another one of us, having experienced severe trauma, stated that the healing space provided by supported housing prevented him from taking his own life.
A safe, secure home is the place we go to reflect, to unwind, and to feel grounded. Home is a foundation for growth and health, and a basic human need. Supported housing provides us with not only a key to a living space, but a key to stability. And stability is a fundamental part of our recovery.