Life House is a go-to for homeless youths in the Twin Ports. More than meals, the nonprofit offers housing, education, job training and mental health support.
During COVID-19 and shutdowns across the state, Life House staff updated procedures, and some of what was in place didn’t need to change at all.
MOBILE MENTAL HEALTH
Sheri Johnson is a licensed social worker and the program manager of Life House’s mobile mental health support. The program was in place before COVID-19, and it is just as it sounds. Johnson conducts mental health appointments off- and onsite.
“Everything we do is trying to eliminate barriers,” Johnson said. Visiting a client where they are can solve common issues such as transportation, accessibility and child care.
She meets youths where they live, in parks or during wellness walks. And she has observed how the change of scenery aids a therapy session.
“As much as I set up my office to be warm and welcoming and have fidget toys, there’s nothing like meeting at a park, Brighton Beach,” Johnson said.
During COVID, it has been difficult not having an office for new youths looking to establish care, the change has helped deepen relationships with existing clients.
And it allows a greater perspective for Johnson.
There’s more exposure to youth’s family, more connection with their neighborhoods and their needs. It also paved the way to problem-solving with the adults in their life.
They’ve also been able to help repair relationships with at-home visits, Johnson said.
Life House’s wellness team considers the physical, mental and spiritual health of their clients.
That starts with an intake, or a needs assessment. Through that initial process, youths are introduced to services, and they may be referred to other departments: education, housing, employment.
The wellness team — made up of two licensed therapists, two peer recovery specialists and a housing wellness advocate — works well at supporting and complementing each other’s roles. And many youths work with several members at once.
Jordan Matteson sits at the front desk at Life House. As the resource coordinator, she is often the first face to greet anyone who walks through the door.
“You see the initial person as they are. If they’re in crisis, you’re the first person to respond to that,” she said.
That can look like a housing emergency, they just found out they’re pregnant or they’re experiencing a mental health crisis. Having access to a member of the wellness team the day of rather than scheduling an appointment weeks away is often key to youths receiving care, she said.
Before COVID-19, staff had more laidback interactions with youths, connecting over games, meals and talking. The pandemic has changed that, and there’s “a little bit more putting out fires, more crisis management.
“Every person on our wellness team, their heart is in the right place. They’re doing everything that needs to be done,” Matteson said.
Allie McDevitt works as a chemical dependency counselor and wellness case manager on the wellness team. McDevitt often doesn’t work by appointment. But if a young person calls and needs assistance, more often than not, she can go at a moment’s notice.
It’s not a 9-to-5 job — it wasn’t before the pandemic — but the need is just as strong now as it was then. Mental health and chemical dependency are so prominent, McDevitt said.
People who struggle with substance abuse have been “victimized by authority” and treated like less than in the system, she added.
Her role is about being a safe space for people who come to Life House.
“Meeting with me, they don’t need to be sober. They may not even want to be sober. There’s a lot of harm reduction, and a big piece of it is truly about connection, trust, respect and how far that can go,” McDevitt said.
She doesn’t write treatment plans, and their needs change frequently. Some are in a crisis, some need an advocate.
McDevitt will show up to be a voice and an ear during hospital visits, or to help with transportation, a transfer to detox, assist with a chemical dependency assessment, or sharing info about needle exchanges. They’re the only support for many of the youths, and being a positive presence holds value for them. It’s also a job that is “the most heartbreaking and the most motivating,” she said.
McDevitt gets to see youths struggling and making steps forward. Success can mean earning their GED or talking to a parent for the first time in a while or staying sober for three days. Success sometimes means a smile, she said.
Her work also hits home for her; McDevitt is part of the recovery community, too. Working with the young people helps with her recovery, she said, they’re a big motivator for her sobriety.
“If I were to say what my role is truly, it’s just about giving hope and showing them what true care and love really is."