Housing charity launches homeless peer counseling program

The city’s fast-growing push to stabilize homeless people and get them into housing quickly has added yet another new twist: Peer counseling.

Using part of a $35,000 grant from the Leon Levine Foundation, one Charlotte housing charity has crafted a program that will hire formerly homeless people to advise men and women who are new to all the seemingly mundane concepts of having a home.

These concepts include learning how to trust people, avoiding fights with neighbors, adjusting to sleeping in a bed again and resisting addiction temptations.

Supportive Housing Communities says it got the idea from similar programs in other cities, and decided it would work well with Charlotte’s rapidly expanding effort to get homeless people out of emergency shelters and into apartments as quickly as possible.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would like that transition to happen in 30 days, but experts admit it’s a tough adjustment for homeless people who’ve lived for months or even years in abandoned buildings or camps.

Many of those same people are also dealing with addictions or disabilities – including mental health problems.

“When people are homeless, they often have a great deal of difficulty with stability,” said Pam Jefsen of Supportive Housing Communities.

“The chronically homeless don’t see doctors, don’t take medicine, don’t have a safe place to sleep. They tend to be isolated, without close relationships on the streets, and rebuilding that takes learning and trust. They are learning to let people into their life again.”

Other housing charities in the community are already watching the peer counseling program to see if they might use the model with their own clients.

The new program will be aimed at homeless people placed in scattered site housing, spread out in apartments across the city. It’s the fastest-growing part of the community’s homeless housing effort, because it gets people off the street without building low-income housing complexes. Such complexes often meet with neighborhood protests.

Organizers say scattered-site housing is also in keeping with a City Council push to spread out low-income housing to all parts of the city, rather than crowding it in already troubled neighborhoods.

Supportive Housing Communities uses the scattered-site approach for 21 households, and nonprofits like the Salvation Army Center of Hope and Charlotte Family Housing have placed hundreds more families in area apartments.

Peer counselors, who will be paid $10 to $15 an hour, are being recruited from among the homeless people who have already found success through such housing programs.

Bobby Livingston, 58, is among the formerly homeless who have signed up to help out. He says he spent 2005 and 2006 living in shelters and camps, in part because of a mental disability that was not diagnosed until he had lost his career and his marriage.

He says a social worker got him into housing and counseling and now he’s stable enough to hold a job working part time. His goal is to help those homeless people who are the least trusting.

“If I hadn’t gotten into a supportive housing program, I’d be dead now,” Livingston said.

“When you’re living on the streets, part of the pain is feeling nobody believes you’ll ever do anything with your life. I am living proof that with the right help, you won’t fall back into homelessness. I made it and that’s a powerful thing for a homeless man to see.”

Tom Lawrence of the Leon Levine Foundation said: “Helping people reach self sufficiency is a critical philosophy of the Leon Levine Foundation. We feel the success rates are significantly higher when individuals are surrounded by all the needed services, and peer counseling is a component of that.”