Sara Marsh is the director of support services at Contra Costa Interfaith Housing (CCIH). She came to CCIH 4 years ago with a background in clinical social work and outpatient mental health, having worked in clinics serving low-income families on both the east and west coasts. “I was intrigued with combining clinical work with community building,” says Sara.
The first CCIH project, Garden Park Apartments, provides permanent supportive housing for 27 formerly homeless families. Each family has one adult member that lives with either a physical or mental health disability. The CCIH agency also has a 52-unit apartment complex and a 71-unit apartment complex, each with accompanying supportive services. All families served by CCIH are working poor and eligible to access the supportive services.
When families first walk through the door, the CCIH team helps them to self-set goals. These goals are often to maintain sobriety, get an education, and sort out benefits. The county homeless services organization works well with CCIH to help people get their benefits quickly. There is extensive collaboration with Children and Family Services (often known as Child Protective Services in other States). Sara explains that this positive relationship with Children and Family Services keeps families together instead of tearing them apart. They also collaborate with the substance use treatment facility, which has an outpatient clinic that works with mothers and children. She continues, “When women find themselves in this situation, we work with property management so that doesn’t mean an automatic eviction. We find extended family kinship care if the mother is in residential care to help the kids stay connected.”
Sara explains, “The fact that we have 5-days a week full-time intensive onsite services is remarkable. This is funding through HUD under permanent supportive housing. Other programs have one social worker that may visit 1 or 2 days a week and it is obviously very different to be here all the time.” Many families move to CCIH during family reunification periods. They are low-income, experiencing homelessness, and many live with mental health issues and struggle with substance use. Alcohol is permissible, but illegal activity is not; drug use is not encouraged.
“We use a behavioral model to track when people are having problems and we work very closely with children,” says Sara. The program hired a staff member with a master’s degree in special education to work with the children after school 4 days a week; this person also tutors all of the youth. Because people stay, staff have the joy of watching young children grow up.
Many children come to CCIH from previously chaotic lives. Sara described one family’s situation as an example, “There was one child in high school, one child in middle school and neither could remember the number of schools they had been to. Their mother could not recall either.” She explains that people who endured years of change and trauma have a difficult time recalling the details of their own histories (she calls it “history holding”). “Every family has their own story. We spend a great deal of time getting to know families,” says Sara.
Another family’s story illuminates the kind of support CCIH is able to provide. A single mother and her son moved into CCIH. The mother was addicted to methamphetamines and the son had a host of acting out behaviors. He experienced a lot of trouble at school. Staff at CCIH worked with the mother to stabilize her. She also struggled with bipolar disorder and had a difficult time staying sober. By eighth grade, the boy was on the verge of expulsion from school for violence. Eventually, a physician diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Medications allowed him to focus.
At this point, his mother relapsed and had to go to a diversion program for theft. She received multifaceted mental health supports and job training, right around the time her son was stabilizing on medications. She graduated from that program and is now in a program to be an advocate for others with mental health issues. Her son lives with her older son, and is on the honor roll and the football team. “We have a 100 percent graduation rate from high school. This comes from the fact that if we can stabilize the parents, then we can move the youth into new directions and break the cycle of intergenerational homelessness and poverty,” says Sara.
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