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Improving Lives by Improving Practices: Consumer Empowerment at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
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In December 2010, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) received the PATH Exemplary Practice Award for Consumer Empowerment. In this article, CCH’s Tom Lucas explains what consumer empowerment means to CCH and how the program evolved over time.

Housing is hardly the only end goal for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). Collaborative relationships between PATH consumers and agency staff taught CCH that many unanticipated challenges persist for consumers after they enter permanent housing. These challenges include feelings of isolation and loneliness, long periods of inactivity, lack of social supports, and periods of conflict with landlords and neighbors. These challenges can escalate symptoms of mental illnesses or increase substance use. At the 2010 State PATH Contact Meeting, CCH received a Consumer Empowerment award for their work in this area.

At CCH, there are a variety of activities and opportunities for PATH consumers to engage with a diverse team of individuals from the agency. Two years ago, CCH instituted a monthly luncheon for recently housed individuals to gather, share a meal, and talk about their common experiences. Peer-specialists take the lead in facilitating discussions and a licensed professional serves in a secondary, supportive role. There is also a weekly peer support group, co-facilitated by a licensed professional and a peer-specialist. Meeting topics include symptom management, psychiatric medication, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness.

Tom Lucas, the PATH program manager at CCH for the past three years, witnesses first-hand the impact of these activities on consumers. Seeing individuals who experience mental illness and substance use disorders who experience difficulties adjusting to being indoors signaled CCH to hone in on the transition phase. Mr. Lucas sees the “veterans and rookies” talk to each other; recently housed individuals seek the guidance and support of those who were in their shoes. Peer-to-peer mentoring is common in CCH programs. That shared experience is very valuable.

“Transition teams” are another form of support for those who obtain housing. Teams are comprised of a consumer, peer-specialist, and case manager. The peer-specialist takes the lead role of facilitating the development of a treatment plan. The balance of consumers working with peer-specialists remains in small cohorts, so a strong rapport develops among peers. Through the mentoring relationships, staff discover ways to cultivate the practices at CCH, and grow personally and professionally.

Mr. Lucas admits the staff team at CCH is small, but their impact is mighty. “We are credentialed as experts in the field, but the consumers are the ones that become empowered to be the experts.” He acknowledges that case managers do not have all the answers. When consumers engage with their treatment planning, they experience empowerment and directly impact how the case managers do business.

While most agencies desire more staff, expanded funding, and more tools and resources, CCH has a proven track record for capitalizing resources and efforts through careful planning. They recognize the need to assist newly housed individuals in the transition from homelessness to housing. By reconfiguring staff roles, they bolstered greater support to expand and improve their activities.

Mr. Lucas emphasizes that improving the impact CCH has on the lives of PATH consumers is a learning process. More specifically, the focus is on how to provide the best planning and care for peer-specialists who directly impact the lives of consumers. Working with peer-specialists requires a careful balance; peer-specialists are individuals who are providing services to individuals trying to achieve stability in their lives. Agencies cannot forget that peer-specialists also continue to deal with their own personal struggles. Integrating peer-specialists is a continuing learning process for all.

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