Safe Havens have long been a refuge for people with severe and persistent mental illness and other disabilities who also experience episodes homelessness, often for long periods of time. Since 1992, Safe Havens have been part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Supportive Housing Program and will continue to be funded through the new Emergency Solutions Grant program. Designed to offer low-barrier services and supports to the most hard-to-reach people, Safe Havens can provide a sense of stability and security for people who would otherwise be exposed to the life-threatening environment on the streets. Here, people who were formerly disconnected from the community and supports are able to move inside and begin to focus on how they can transition from the streets to permanent, supportive housing. For fifteen years, Safe Place in Tampa, Florida has been offering safe haven to some of that community’s most vulnerable residents. The program is operated by Mental Health, Inc., an agency that works to advocate for and give hope to all people touched by behavioral health and developmental challenges. Recently they’ve begun a new phase in their work as a Safe Haven that partners with the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) to help connect Veterans to this valuable resource.
Safe Place, nestled in a quiet neighborhood in Tampa, offers a secure, clean, and comfortable living environment where people who have mental illnesses, disabilities, and who are experiencing homelessness and may be even struggling with substance abuse can come inside to a place geared towards their unique needs. When asked what it means to be low-barrier, Director of Outpatient Services, Jenine LaCoe, gave a great example:
We find ways to make it work. And we’re patient. We expect that people coming to Safe Place need time to adjust, and we’re willing to wait it out. We don’t have a lot of rules, so there aren’t as many to break. Our focus is on health and safety, and building relationships. If someone comes home intoxicated, we don’t throw them out or confront them about it. We make sure they get inside, are safe, and not in any kind of medical risk. The next day, once the crisis is over, we are there to process with them, to find out what is behind the substance use. Many times, we’ll learn of a traumatic experience, either in the past or in the present, as the cause. For that individual, that traumatic experience led to trying to handle feelings of guilt, rage, isolation, and shame on their own, on the streets with drugs or alcohol. With that in mind, we approach each person as an individual and work with them to get a plan for permanent housing, often times paired with supportive services.
The experience of trauma, struggling with mental health stability, and homelessness is unfortunately something some Veterans do face.. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is committed to the goal of ending homelessness among all Veterans by 2015, and as part of their approach, VA is partnering with community programs skilled at supporting Veterans that need a helping hand as they reconnect with the community and find housing. In Tampa, this can be seen in a partnership between Safe Place and the James A. Haley VAMC. In July 2012, Safe Place formally dedicated beds for Veterans, allowing outreach workers at the VA, on the streets and shelters, and at jails to make referrals. Staff from VA visit Safe Place, working with Veterans to access programs like HUD-VASH and other VA benefits. Matt McGahran, Clinical Manager at James A. Haley VAMC explains their collaboration:
This partnership has been great. It gives Veterans hope, and we know that they are getting the kind of support that they need from an experienced provider. This program lets them come inside even if they aren’t ready to accept treatment yet, so we can start to build relationships and understand their unique needs in order to help them access permanent housing. We’re excited to see this partnership and think it will help us reduce chronic homelessness among Veterans in Tampa.
Each day, those accessing services at Safe Place work with community providers and staff to develop a plan that includes housing, income, health, and wellness. People staying at Safe Place are welcome to come and go as they please. On any given day, you might meet someone who isn’t yet accepting services but willing to talk to staff and share a bit about what they need. You’ll also find people in the kitchen preparing a meal or in the common room, participating in an exercise class or recovery meeting while others will be on their way to a job interview, school, or volunteering.
Safe Place has embraced innovations and best practices over the years in order to continue to meet the needs of people who are disconnected and in need of outreach and support. Today, this is exhibited in the mutual respect, professionalism, creativity, and low-barrier approach shared among staff and people who live at Safe Place. Incorporating a Veteran focus is an exciting and innovative chapter for Safe Place which promises to provide a link between the Veterans experiencing chronic homelessness and VA, which is committed to helping them get off the streets and into permanent housing.