Renee Stevens knows what it’s like to hit rock bottom. After a series of bad relationships and struggles with drug addiction, she returned to her home city of Vancouver with her three young daughters in 1999. But there was no home to return to this time.
She found Open House Ministries — a homelessness provider that embraced her, put a roof over her head and gave her work. From overnight security to lead case manager, Stevens worked her way up within the organization that helped her. Around six years ago, the executive director told her to apply for his job after he stepped down, she said.
“To be able to utilize the gifts that I was given through me being homeless for so long, being able to turn that around and offer that gift to others — I felt like I needed to take that gift and use it,” said Stevens, now running the organization from her corner office in Vancouver.
It’s common in Clark County for homeless organizations to employ people who were formerly homeless — sometimes having been pulled out of homelessness by the very organizations they now work for.
In fact, practically every homelessness provider in Clark County has staff with some sort of lived experience — whether it’s a history of homelessness, unstable housing situations or substance abuse disorders.
The employees say their experience helps them not only give back to the community, but grants them an inside look to issues others might not understand.
Clara Johnson — senior programs manager for Council for the Homeless — is 18 years sober but used to struggle with alcoholism and staying housed in Vancouver. She said her experience helps her be more patient with the people with whom she works.
“While it may seem that individuals don’t want to participate, don’t want to move forward, it’s not always just that they don’t want to — they can’t. Their addiction is what is keeping them alive in a sense, helping to keep them sane,” Johnson said.
She explains this to co-workers who lack personal experience of substance use disorders to help them understand their clients’ challenges.
People accessing Open House Ministries’ services can sometimes seem ungrateful, Stevens said.
“They’re not really ungrateful,” she said. “They’re sad. They’re angry. They’re lonely. They’ve been abandoned.”
Her time spent homeless gives her a deeper sense of empathy for the people who walk through her shelter’s doors, she said.
She remembers taking a financial class when she first came to Open House Ministries. Although she initially didn’t think the class was necessary, she realized it wasn’t only changing the way she viewed money, but also her outlook.
“I needed to stop fighting against the people who were trying to help me,” Stevens said. “I would walk into class with this attitude of, ‘Well, I don’t even have money. Why am I in this class? This is ridiculous.’ So I understand when residents come into our shelter and go through that.”
That understanding can be key to forming connections with people whose trust has been eroded after seeking help and finding none.
Scott Thacker, a veteran working for Council for the Homeless, builds relationships with the homeless veterans he works with by sharing his own story.
“When I say, ‘I understand,’ I really do understand. I do understand the frustration because I was homeless with my family trying to navigate all these systems,” he said.
Homeless veterans can often be distrustful of government assistance, Thacker said. Some have lost faith in the government, feeling left behind after falling into homelessness following service. Thacker helps them find resources they might not know they’re eligible for.
“Helping them understand that I was in the same place they were, it just seems to open up communication with them,” Thacker said.
Outside knowledge changing the inside
Many staff with lived experience have used their knowledge from their time living outside to enhance the services their organization offers.
Morgan Valentine used his experience to make Council for the Homeless’ resources more accessible, he said.
He’s the nonprofit’s coordinated entry systems manager, but he was once 19, living on the streets of Silicon Valley in California.
Although his life looks a lot different now, Valentine still remembers what it was like to be a young person on the street, struggling to find resources.
“I think that knowing the feeling of despair and solitude that it filled me with — I think that it gave a perspective into how I approach this work,” he said.
He wants to make sure resources are easy to find and engage, so he’s helped create more in-person opportunities to apply for services and often hosts a table with information on resources at community events.
“No” is a word he heard frequently when he was homeless. It’s a word that made him feel abandoned. Now, he works to make sure people have the opportunities he didn’t.
“What’s really important to me is that people have a sense or belonging or a sense of home and a sense of community,” Valentine said.
Adam Kravitz, executive director of Outsiders Inn, creates communities for people experiencing homelessness. The organization is contracted to run the first and third Safe Stay — using his six years of experience on the streets in Vancouver.
Once, he was living in a house and working full time at a restaurant. But when the woman he was dating and her child died in a fire, he spiraled into grief and began living on the streets.
Over about six years, he stayed in just about every shelter in the community, he said, surrounded by shelter workers who had no idea what he was going through.
“Every time I would be exhibiting signs of trauma that I had been through, no one understood me, and I would be denied services if I was too upset,” he said.
It didn’t make sense to him, and he knew he wanted to change that.
Embracing peer support
After Kravitz became housed, he started learning about peer support (people with experience of trauma — such as homelessness, mental health issues or substance abuse disorders) from the Vancouver nonprofit Community Voices are Born — an organization that helps people with recovery of mental health or addiction struggles.
He was fascinated with the history of peer support.
According to a 2013 study published in the National Library of Medicine, peer support goes all the way back to the late 1700s, when Jean Baptiste Pussin, the governor of a hospital in Paris, noted in a letter that employees who were former patients were “usually more gentle, honest, and humane” with current patients.
But the concept of peer support took off in the 1960s and 1970s, when psychiatric hospitals released patients into communities with limited mental health services. Former patients formed peer self-help groups for mental health challenges, according to a 2022 article published in the National Library of Medicine, and people began to realize the value of shared experiences.
“Peer work has deep roots, and we started learning a lot about that,” Kravitz said. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted our focus to be folks with lived experience.”
Outsiders Inn is entirely made up of employees with lived experience — some of them hired after receiving help from the organization.
Other organizations are catching on. Over the last six years, Kravitz said he’s seen the number of people with lived experience quadruple at Clark County agencies supporting the homeless.
The number of peer support positions only seems to be increasing, with the state passing a bill last year to make peer specialists a certified profession.
“Hopefully people are seeing our results and seeing that as a standard that should be among all service providers,” he said.
‘More than just a job’
Although service providers with lived experience find it rewarding to help others with similar backgrounds, it can have an affect on their mental health. Some find solace with co-workers that understand what they’re going through.
Nicholl Acosta-Alaspa, a member of Sea Mar Community Health Centers — an organization that does outreach work in unhoused communities — said her organization has become like a home for her.
Before the pandemic, she battled drug addiction and mental health problems. Now recovered, she has devoted her life to helping others — although it’s hard to shut off on her days off, she said.
“The compassion and the empathy that I have, it’s almost too intense sometimes,” she said. “It’s because of that drive, because of that understanding, we go the extra mile.”
Many service providers with lived experience are in stable housing or in recovery, but that doesn’t mean memories of hard times go away.
It can be challenging for Johnson, of Council for the Homeless, to hear stories from her clients that mirror her own, resurfacing bad memories in the middle of her workday. But she carries on.
“I work very hard on making sure I’m centering myself in a way that is also going to protect my mental health,” she said.
That’s often done by debriefing with her team, many of whom also have lived experience. And when they need to talk, she’s there for them, too, she said.
There’s a community aspect to organizations made up of staff with shared experiences. Not only can they relate to their clients, but they can relate to each other.
John Meadows used to live in his van with his two sons, but Open House Ministries helped him find stability. He now works as the floor supervisor for the organization’s thrift shop, Secondhand Solutions.
Although he’s been housed for around five years, the fear that he might someday be homeless again remains.
“I’m always scared of falling back. I guess as long as you keep on working hard, you won’t do that,” he said. “But I think mentally — it just keeps going around and around. I’m actually wondering: When will I get past that?”
In another workplace, he might be the only person struggling with thoughts like these. At Open House Ministries, however, he’s surrounded by people that know what it’s like to not have a home.
“I’ve had several jobs where I never enjoyed going to work,” Meadows said. “I love my job. I enjoy coming to work two, sometimes three, hours early just to sit around.”
“It’s wild to think of an organization as home for me. It’s more than just a job. This is like my family now. They’re the ones who loved me when I didn’t love myself.”
Stevens, of Open House Ministries, isn’t exactly sure why Clark County has so many service providers with lived experience compared with other communities she’s been to, but she does know how beneficial that experience can be.
Clients feel understood, staff get to give back to the community and people experiencing homelessness can feel a sense of hope seeing people who have found success, she said.
“I think there’s just this pull to want to be helpful in our community,” Stevens said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.