Lorena Collins is the Senior Program Director of South Bay Mental Health and Men’s Services with InnVision the Way Home. But before that, she spent 20 years as a case manager—so she knows what it means to be there every day for the poorest and sickest members of our community. Read her interview below!
Q: You’re the program director for Men’s Services. What does that mean?
Lorena: Men’s services are often forgotten in this field—people want to help homeless women and children, but they think men can just “make it” on the street. What they may not realize is that all of our clients have experienced trauma. They’ve been raped, or beaten. When one of my clients was little, his father nailed his hand to the kitchen table. Others were kidnapped, or abused during their childhood. Imagine trying to trust somebody after that—or to give government officials your personal information. It’s almost impossible.
I wish people could remember that homeless men have talent, kindness and amazing potential—they too were once somebody’s child. Some of them tend to put up these independent or aggressive fronts, as a coping strategy, and part of our job is to help them admit they need help, and trust us to give them support. They get scared, just like anybody else.
People don’t realize that homeless men and women learn adaptive and survival skills on the street that are different from what it takes to succeed in other places. They learn ways to cope with poverty and fear, and at times these compensatory strategies may not serve them well when it comes to, for example, a job-search. Many homeless clients may develop mental illnesses caused by past trauma—or that is exacerbated by past trauma—and then use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. They do it to survive, but then they may become addicted and it’s even harder to escape from the cycle of poverty.
Q: How does your work involve Housing 1000?
Lorena: I supervise our Housing 1000 case manager, whose clients are often featured on Housing ONE. I also assist with ongoing coordination of surveys being completed at our Cecil White Day Services Center for the Housing 1000 Registry. Our Montgomery Street Inn and Julian Street Inn are both doing the Housing 1000 survey upon intake. We’ve integrated Housing 1000 into our daily routines, here at InnVision.
Q: What’s the most important factor in housing these high-need men and women?
Lorena: Aside from affordable housing actually being available, case management is by far the most important part of housing chronically homeless individuals. Case managers need to be adaptable to help people get housed and stay housed. It takes a team because these clients are high risk. They need to learn to trust people in order to make progress, and it takes a great case manager to build that trust.
Q: You mentioned trust issues, anxiety and self-medication as struggles for mentally ill homeless people. What other ways can mental illness impact these clients?
Lorena: There’s a stigma against mental illness. When people talk about mental illness, the term schizophrenia is sometimes used indiscriminately. It’s a common mistake to assume because you suffer from mental illness, you are schizophrenic—but actually mental illness can be anything from acute psychosis to bouts of mild depression. People tend to believe it’s like in the movies, with individuals hearing voices causing them to be quite extreme with their behavior and volatile, but that very often isn’t the case.
Our motto here is that no matter their starting situation, everybody can be helped. Everyone can improve, given the right support.
Q: Do you see mentally ill individuals getting employment at all?
Lorena: I see our clients getting and keeping employment all the time. Here at InnVision, we tell our clients what they CAN do rather than what they can’t do. They’re certainly employable. You can suffer from mental illness, and still be just as effective as anyone else.
There are barriers, especially now with the economic downturn—you’ve got people with degrees going for the Safeway jobs, so our clients are seen second. Most of our clients don’t have cars, so it’s hard for them to get to work. There’s a need for more support especially now.
Q: What about barriers to housing specifically?
Lorena: People who owned before the crash are now renting, so there’s more competition for units. Landlords would much rather not pick someone with an eviction and bad credit history on their record, if they have a choice, so our clients have it extra tough. Plus there’s not enough deposit or rental assistance available, with funding cuts to the public sector.
Housing 1000 can make a difference by spreading awareness. People should know that mentally ill homeless men and women can be successful with any risk factors they have. It’s important to talk about the real challenges our clients face, because only then can you truly see how far they’ve come.
- Interview with Miriam Rivera, Intensive Case Manager with New Directions (housing1000.wordpress.com)
- 25 Years Early: The Possible Death Decree for the Seriously Mentally Ill (candidaabrahamson.wordpress.com)
- Canada urged to ban solitary confinement for mentally ill (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- A-SPAN Receives HUD Grant (arlnow.com)