Housing Options Made Easy provides supportive housing to both rural and urban communities in Western New York. Created by a group of consumers, Housing Options Made Easy is one of the largest peer-run agencies in the United States. It is one of the few that offers supportive housing for families. This article profiles the vision, values, and practices of Housing Options Made Easy.
People who are discharged from psychiatric facilities are often unable to access the housing and community supports they need to maintain emotional and mental well-being. They frequently encounter discrimination, stigma, and stereotypes, in addition to a lack of affordable and safe housing.
In 1990, a group of group of mental health services recipients got together in the Buffalo, NY area. They were acutely aware of the many obstacles confronting their peers as they tried to find affordable housing to live within the community.
The group of consumers knew all too well the barriers that confront people with mental health diagnoses upon discharge.
Inspired by the growing consumer rights movement, they wanted to create a community-based program based on the recovery principles of choice and empowerment in the delivery of mental health services.
Together, they created Housing Options Made Easy, Inc.
Housing Options Made Easy, Inc. (HOME) is one of the largest peer-run agencies in the country and one of only a few that provide supportive housing to families. HOME employs a staff comprised entirely of peer-providers in its supportive housing program for families.
The philosophy and management practices of HOME offer a template that can help other agencies interested in fostering greater consumer involvement or moving toward a peer-run model. In the words of Joe Woodward, HOME’s Executive Director, “We are writing the book on consumer-run residential services in Western New York State.”
Philosophy & Vision Statement
HOME knew they needed a strong vision statement to match their unique approach. The vision statement articulates their intention to be a peer-run organization with a strong commitment to empowering and improving the lives of persons experiencing mental illness. Their mission is simple: “To provide services and supports that allow service recipients to achieve integration and social equality in the community.”
As an organization with a very intentional consumer orientation, HOME operates somewhat differently from more traditional human service agencies. In addition to providing quality services to its clients, the organization is dedicated to facilitating and maintaining a peer culture and supportive work setting for staff. According to Joe Woodward, Executive Director, HOME is both “relationship oriented” and “results oriented.” The average tenure for staff is nine years, well beyond the industry standard. Here are some ways in which HOME is different:
HOME uses standard recruitment practices, such as advertising and word of mouth. In addition, local mental health and social service agencies refer clients to apply for direct care or other positions with HOME. HOME staff members also identify potential peer advocates through HOME’s peer provider training program. When the agency has openings, trainees from the program often are recruited to be peer advocates. Many of the agency’s peer advocacy staff report that they first became interested in the job while they were clients themselves. The first step is to sign up for HOME’s peer provider training program.
HOME approaches personnel issues with a supportive staff-friendly approach. A staff member might experience a relapse that leads to a hospitalization, the inability to work regular hours, or a decrease in work performance. In these cases, the agency strives to be very supportive and flexible. It is not uncommon for an employee to be granted a leave of absence or to be accommodated with a work schedule that is supportive of his or her mental health needs. Joe Woodward shares that it has been a learning process. In the past, some Human Resources managers did not understand the consumer environment, and the need for the agency to be sensitive to issues of symptom flare-ups.
HOME believes in the importance of good health insurance for employees with mental health diagnoses. HOME offers health insurance benefits that include adequate coverage for medication and mental health services. In addition, rather than granting time off according to designated purposes (i.e. holiday, vacation, and sick days), the agency offers a paid time off (PTO). PTO means that the employee does not have to specify the reason for taking time off. It is a more flexible arrangement that gives all staff members the opportunity to rest and get away from their everyday routine as needed.
Questions About Competency
HOME operates as a business and relies on standard business practices to maintain its organizational stability and promote sustainable growth. Yet, HOME also goes the extra mile to combat discrimination. The agency is aware that it faces existing stigma against people with mental health diagnoses. This may take the form of questions about competency coming from the community or funders of mental health services. In response, HOME has been particularly diligent about establishing and maintaining a reputation for excellence in all aspects of its work.
Over the years, the agency has grown substantially. HOME now has a multi-million dollar budget and operates in six counties. In 2008, Housing Options Made Easy, Inc had 238 supportive housing units, including 57 for families, and provided 3,463 units of peer support services to the residents of those units. Additionally, HOME trained 29 consumers to become peer advocates who provide regular telephone support to individuals living in rural communities. The agency continues to expand its service capacity and service area.