Tough Love

May 30, 2018

Last month, we proudly shared the story of Kassy, whose newborn son's medical emergency while she was living at Central City Concern's Letty Owings Center became the turning point for her to take her recovery and her future with her son seriously. We debuted our video about her at our We Are Family fundraiser in early May, and she continues make progress in her schooling to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

But as many will attest, the pain and destruction from addictive behaviors nearly always extend beyond the individual. Family and loved ones get hurt, too. They're often put in impossible situations. Kristi, Kassy's sister, graciously shares what Kassy's journey—from her rocky childhood to her present-day successes—looked like from the other side.

• • •

The phone call came while I was in Disneyland:

“Yes, this is Kristi,” I answered.

“I don’t know what’s going on in your apartment but you better get home now!” said the voice on the other end, frantic and angry.

I listened in horror.

“They’re trashing the place and dropping bottles from your balcony, trying to hit people!”

I flew back the next day. My home was ransacked, almost everything either broken or stolen. I begged not to be evicted.

She did it again—my sister Kassy.

Kassy and I are four-and-a-half years apart. She had a lot of needs early in life; she couldn’t hear at birth, but eventually that was corrected with surgery. She learned to talk late, seemed to always be sick, and was often in and out of the hospital. As Kassy entered school she had trouble making friends and developed anger issues. By high school, drugs became a major part of my sister’s life and impacted the entire family. I watched my parents go through one heartbreaking episode after another with my sister. 

Kassy (left) and Kristi.I didn’t speak to Kassy for almost eight months after she destroyed my apartment. When she finally called, I was surprised by what she said, but not totally. “I’m pregnant,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry for everything… Will you help me?”

My sister needed me. I had to be there for her.

Kassy committed to being clean and sober through the entire pregnancy. At only 18, she chose to let friends of our family adopt the child. Giving up the baby put her in a dark and lonely place. Kassy couldn’t see the good in what she’d done for the adopting parents, and for the baby. She suffered. Deep down I knew as soon as the papers were signed, my sister was going back to where she would feel no pain. The closer we got to the birth, the more dread I felt about her future.

Not long after Kassy gave up the baby, I made a critical mistake. Newly divorced, I needed a fresh start. I accepted a job in Virginia but was nervous about the move, having never been away from my family in Oregon. So I took my sister with me. She was still dealing with the guilt of giving up a child, and was using drugs regularly and drinking again. But in lucid moments Kassy claimed she wanted to give it all up. We agreed that a change of scenery would improve life for both of us. It all came to an end two months after the move, on what I thought was just another Tuesday night.

She charged at me with a fury that caused me to fear for my life. She wanted money for alcohol, and my car keys. She threw things and spewed hatred. I wasn’t going to call the police on my sister—even though I didn’t recognize her. I fled.

Our parents moved Kassy back home almost immediately. I returned six years later. During the time I was gone I was constantly on the phone with Mom or Dad having gut-wrenching conversations about the state of panic they were living in. Kassy was spiraling. She was stealing from them to buy drugs. Dad would go out and find her in the most disgusting places, sometimes beaten severely by a drug-fueled “friend.”

Living so far away, all I could do was worry.

When I moved back and saw my sister for the first time in years, she was extremely frail and unhealthy. I feared she’d have heart failure right then and there. As a family we tried to stay positive, but the strain of Kassy’s addiction was unbearable at times. Mom would do something Dad didn’t agree with, I would do something Mom saw as unhelpful, we would all stop talking to each other, and it went round and round like that day after day. We worried that by loving her, we were enabling her. But we couldn’t let her go without basic needs like food and shelter. All of us were confused… exhausted… terrified. Holidays were the worst. Our hearts were beating, but we weren’t breathing—always on eggshells, waiting for a call from the police, saying Kassy was arrested again, or had overdosed.

At 29, pregnant and homeless, Kassy got arrested for the last time after a series of arrests. It was a relief. I saw jail as a chance for her to be protected. A chance to get a meal, and be away from drugs and alcohol.

While Kassy was in jail and facing prison time, our mom’s cousin discovered Central City Concern’s Letty Owings Center (an inpatient treatment program for pregnant women and mothers with young children). She presented the possibility to Kassy, who only interviewed at Letty Owings Center (LOC) as a way to stay out of prison. She was admitted within days. There were challenges immediately. Kassy didn’t like the rules, expectations, or emphasis on accountability. But the staff was patient, and eventually won her trust.

She began to heal. My parents and I could take a breath.

Over the next eight months Kassy completed treatment at Letty Owings Center, and had her son Ace. The experience at LOC taught her how to be a mother. She learned how to care for a baby, and for herself. After leaving LOC Kassy and Ace (Mom calls him our miracle), moved into Laura’s Place (three to six months of housing, support services and case management for women who have completed treatment at LOC). Next, the two of them moved into permanent alcohol- and drug-free family housing provided by Central City Concern. The fact that it’s a clean and sober living environment is so huge.

"I know if I need something Kassy will be there for me. And she knows I’m here for her, and for Ace. Always."Moms, dads, and kids get together to celebrate milestones, support one another emotionally, and look out for each other. Families are able to laugh, relax, and enjoy their lives. Knowing my sister and nephew have a safe place to call home helps me sleep at night.

We stopped trying to do everything for Kassy, and she claimed more control over her life. She gained a profound understanding of what it takes to get better. And she’s committed to seeing it through. I was afraid for so many years. For my sister. For my parents. There were days when nothing I said or did seemed to make a difference. Days when I felt useless and weak. But now I know what the right help and strength of family can overcome. I know the power of not giving up on someone. I no longer blame or second guess myself. I’m not running to my parents and trying to figure out why, why, why, or how, how, how. I talk to my sister almost every day. We are together three to four times a week. I know if I need something Kassy will be there for me. And she knows I’m here for her, and for Ace. Always.

Central City Concern’s help has been invaluable. Without the resources, I believe Kassy would maybe still be using drugs and likely be homeless, or worse. CCC gave Kassy an extended family of staff and residents who share similar backgrounds and speak from experience. They put her in touch with a lot of good things like peer support, the Employment Access Center, family mentoring, health care, and mental health counseling. The possibilities of a promising future were revealed to my sister through healthy living, education, and friends to lean on. Today Kassy is going to school at Portland Community College, studying to be an addictions counselor. Soon she’ll be able to share her experience with others, like the staff at Letty Owings Center did with her. She’s well on her way, having recently earned certification as a peer mentor. I am so proud of her!



Monthly Volunteer Spotlight: May 2018 Edition

May 29, 2018

For this month’s volunteer spotlight we sat down with Danielle Wheeler, a volunteer with the Recuperative Care Program (RCP), to talk about her work.

RCP provides immediate housing, intensive case management and access to primary care at our Old Town Clinic. Once clients are stable, they can focus on rebuilding their lives. Central City Concern specialists can help them get supportive housing, training, employment and the resources they need to recover and to become self-sufficient.

Jordan Wilhelms, RCP's program manager, had this to say about the role Danielle, our spotlighted volunteer, plays:

“Danielle has been an amazing volunteer for RCP. She has embodied the RCP spirit of service, has tirelessly and consistently worked to improve our systems, relieve our staff from burden where possible, and brought her organizational and housing expertise to RCP’s capacity to provide skilled interventions for our participants!”

Annie Demotta, RCP's housing specialist added, “Danielle is someone with an incredible skill set, with high standards, who also leads with her heart. On behalf of myself, the RCP team and the people we serve, we are so lucky to have her here!”

Read on to hear how Danielle got connected with CCC, why the team keeps her coming back to volunteer, and why housing is such a crucial part of recuperative care.

• • •

PeterAs CCC's Recuperative Care Program housing specialist volunteer, Danielle has become a key member of the team and a compassionate ear for clients.: What is your name and volunteer position?

Danielle: My name is Danielle Wheeler and my volunteer position is housing specialist.

P: How did you get hooked up with RCP and CCC?

D: This is a really cool story actually. So three years ago I left my career job to stay home with my kids and I wanted to spend a little more time volunteering while my kids were in school. For many years I’d been involved through my church in a monthly serving of meals at Bud Clark Commons through Transition Projects (TPI), so I called them up and they threw me into a role to teach how subsidized housing works.

P: Do you have a background in subsidized housing?

D: I don’t. I have an MBA and my background is in marketing. A case manager who was doing those classes trained me and then he went back into his case management role, so I continued on [teaching the classes]. It was really great and it gave me the hands-on work that I really wanted to do.

So I did that for a couple years, and one day I met a woman who was struggling with her housing plan and understanding the housing market and I finally referred her to her case manager and she said, “Well, I don’t have a case manager here, I’m at RCP” and I said, “What’s RCP?”

I was introduced to [RCP staffer] Annie Demotta and through that, because this woman was just not understanding who was who and where everybody came together, learned about the RCP program and I was hooked. Annie invited me in to take a look around and see if I wanted to get involved, so I slowly started balancing that into my workload.

"So often I will hear clients articulate that because of transient living circumstances... that their medical condition is more complicated than it would be if they had their own home, their own space, their own quiet."
-Danielle, CCC Volunteer

P: What did you find so interesting about RCP?

D: I have a real passion for working with the most vulnerable, and RCP has a very high percentage of those who need a lot more supportive care across the board, not just in housing. So housing is where I spend most of my time, but housing is just one piece of people being able to achieve whatever goals they have for themselves.

I’ve worked at Intel, I’ve worked at Microsoft, I’ve worked at other large well-known organizations, and I have never seen a team that functions so well and with a lot of diversity on the team as well. There’s a lot of respect here and I think the vast majority of clients that come through RCP really feel this is their journey and that we are not dictating to them. We are here to support them, hear their goals, and then provide them pathways to that and then encourage them along the way. I really hear that come out in the clients.

And yet these are some of the most vulnerable people. They have not only had some hard luck along the way, not had family support, whatever it might be that has lead them to the situation; now they have medical conditions on top of that and so for me it just really grabs my heart to be able to be a part of a team that is there to support them in moving along their path.

P: And what specifically are you doing with the program? Has it changed since volunteering at TPI?

D: It’s broadened. At TPI I was more focused on subsidized housing, but housing can often be much more than that. To address somebody’s subsidized housing plan, you really have to understand who they are, what their overall goals are, and it’s usually a multi-step process. It’s rare that somebody can just go out and get a job and get an apartment. It does happen, but sometimes there needs to be some other pieces along the way.

So what I like about my role here is it’s all-encompassing. It’s “sit down, hear where they want to go with housing, and then start to fill in the pieces;” sometimes that’s subsidized housing, sometimes it’s not. Through Annie and through the team, I’ve learned about and continued to learn about so many different housing options that exist out there.

P: And what are the main challenges in that work of trying to help secure housing for people?

D: I think, simply put, it’s that there aren’t enough options for people. I think that there are a lot of great programs out there and I think that there’s a lot of energy trying to coordinate across those programs. However, they are still disparate and understanding what is what, I think of it as a big puzzle. Each person gets to define what pieces they want to put in that puzzle and there is no guidebook for that.

"I’ve worked at Intel, I’ve worked at Microsoft,  I've worked at other large well-known organizations, and I have never seen a team that functions so well..."

P: And the fact that you’re dealing with people who may have been chronically homeless over decades and dealing with complex medical issues, I’d imagine the process can be really overwhelming for folks.

D: Yeah, it really depends. There are some who are ready, whether that’s due to a new illness that has complicated something, a recent arrest that has been the final straw for them, some people come really ready to change things. But for most, it is a challenge to build trust, and not with the staff here, I see that happen more quickly than I’ve seen with any other program, but rather trust in the process and that “the system” won’t let them down. It’s not uncommon that until somebody has the keys in their hand they don’t really believe it’s going to happen. So sometime we get lack of engagement because of that, which is heartbreaking.

It’s hard to get to the core of why they don’t trust. And it might just be that they are not ready for that, it’s not their time yet. And that’s okay too. One of the great things about RCP is that the staff here are very respectful of [that]. It’s not about us imposing on them, for example, that they must be housed. If somebody is not comfortable with that, for whatever reason, we can offer them support in maybe exploring that, but if that’s not what they want that’s okay too. It’s client-led here and I think that’s a big difference.

P: And despite the fact that being housed is a part of the RCP program, it’s technically a health services program. Why do we have a housing department in a health services program?

D: So often I will hear clients articulate that because of transient living circumstances (or whatever has been going on in their housing background that is not stable) that their medical condition is more complicated than it would be if they had their own home, their own space, their own quiet. So, many people recognize that and recognize that housing is a part of their care plan, medically speaking.

P: So it’s giving that baseline to be able to build on the rest of that plan?

D: It’s a piece of the plan. RCP has a very holistic view. People come in here for medical reasons, but then we’re humanizing their experience and we’re saying you know we’re not just here to get you to your doctor’s appointment. We’re here to listen to you and hear what your goals are when you leave and see if we can’t support and connect you during your time here to helping you on your pathway to those goals. And more often than not, housing is a piece of that: “If I only had my own space and quiet I could heal better” or “I could sleep better and then I could go back to work.” So housing becomes a core piece for most people.

P: Have there been any standout experiences during your time here?

D: There have definitely been some clients who came through here that’ve touched my heart and have gotten housed and been so grateful and there have been some beautiful moments that way. But I think the moment that touched me the most was actually an internal one with the team.

There had been an incident in the building that had potentially put some of our staff in harm’s way. What really touched me was that this team’s management intentionally took the time to sit the team down, debrief, and make sure that people felt heard. Emotions were encouraged and shared. I had mentioned this was a high-functioning team, but in that moment I saw why. The management of this team was incredible in the way that they allowed that to unfold and the team to come together, and that translates into better services for our clients. Not just because of the skill set (should there be another potentially dangerous situation), but just for being more present and aware as a team for every client that comes through here.

P: And, our traditional last question, what would you say to someone who was curious about volunteering with CCC but was on the fence?

D: I do get asked a lot by people who are interested. Homelessness is such a big topic in Portland and so lots of people ask me how they can get involved. Having seen only a slice of CCC, but hearing about how the medical services, for example, fit in, or the bigger housing pieces fit in, I am so impressed with CCC’s offerings across different ways to serve somebody. CCC’s big enough where anybody who wants to get involved in homelessness, whatever that means to them and wherever their passions are, can figure out [a role] where they are comfortable and still contribute to the organization.