In 2010, I was the first recruit of a still-to-be-formed respite house in Santa Cruz, California. Yana Jacobs, grant writer and Chief of Outpatient Behavioral Health Services for the county, asked me to facilitate a group called the Client Core. The Client Core was a group of committed individuals wanting to build and potentially work at the program we dubbed 2nd Story. As a peer group, we were chaotic and often destructive toward one another. Yet we loved each other and we built each other up even as we tore each other down. Many of us hoped to be an activist group, shuttling in the peer movement, as yet to no avail.
I was a newcomer to this peer community. I had tried for so long to stay in hiding and was now finally drawn out. I qualify as a peer, having received Social Security benefits, Section 8 voucher, medication, and forced treatment. This all due to my distressing needs to allow voices to guide me, my deep-seated trust issues and a bevy of nightmares—accompanied by exalted states of bliss. However, this story is not about me. This story is about 2nd Story and the saving grace that it provides our community. I have been a steward of this program for eight years. Within the last five, I’ve served as a manager. Twenty years on Social Security gone, and almost fifteen years with the Section 8 voucher program are through. This is not boasting for myself. 2nd Story provided me with community, liberation and the means to break free of systemic identities. Countless have received the fruits of this home.
When 2nd Story started, in many ways we were the County Mental Health system’s clichéd “redheaded stepchild.” Ever-present were the fear from providers, concerns from family members, and a persistently resistant peer community. Some of the worries were that we could not handle ourselves and would crumble, that we were unable to be professional, and even some concerns that we would replace the provider community. We faced tremendous pressures from without and within. We faced multiple tragedies and shared collective delusions. We would have crumbled without Yana protecting the peer dream from the provider system. She constantly defended us to her superiors by saying we would figure out how to run the program, not allowing their demands to appoint clinical staff.
In the early years we created conflict for each other, and could not separate years of forced silence to find ways to work in unison. We all shared similar dreams of house success and could not seem to get out of our own way. Everything was boiling hot. Every word, every thought, every intention. Team meetings existed as flurries of incredible ideas, accompanied by a tumbling and crumbling. Yet still we rose. Over the years, we settled down and learned to recognize the other, to let not our words burn so hot as to inflict pain. We found ways to communicate, to understand our ideas, lean in toward unity. As hiring manager, I learned to only hire peers who loved. Only love and lovers. What better way to provide a healing environment? Love, the reason for our success.
For our first five years, we received funding mostly through a SAMHSA transformation grant that included a research component. We were established and funded as a program of Encompass Community Services, a large local community-based organization that contracted with the county and other private and government funding sources to provide a range of mental health, substance use, housing, and shelter services and provide programs for parents and families with children. Over the years, Encompass supported us in a range of important ways, including charging forward alongside us in our many NIMBY struggles, and providing us valuable training in the areas of Mindfulness, Motivational Interviewing and many other modalities. As a community program, we made sure that Intentional Peer Support trainers trained peers from all over the county, even reaching into neighboring Monterey and San Jose. More than six IPS Trainings. As we grew and developed our program with its strong and clear peer voice, Encompass grew and learned with us. As an organization, Encompass shared and supported our successes and joined us in our celebrations of new milestones. In many ways, 2nd Story had succeeded in creating greater awareness and acceptance as a highly valued peer-run respite program and had transitioned from the system’s stepchild to its own beloved golden child.
Yet, nationally, we got the label of a “hybrid” peer respite model because of the support we received as a program of Encompass. Not being good enough to be called “peer run” was a struggle at first. We fought for our identity and leaned in with resistance to allowing others to name our experience. We continued to build. We built with pride: Hybrid Pride. At some point in this trajectory, we let go of the movement that from all corners judged us even as they supported us. We moved forward while working with multiple other communities working to start a respite of their own. We shared and let go of all outcomes.
Peer researcher Laysha Ostrow, of Live and Learn, arranged a meeting with CHFFA, California Health Facilities Financing Authority. Laysha, Yana and I drove to Sacramento where funds could be available to support respite services like ours. 2nd Story was always on the chopping block when budget time rolled around. This time, we petitioned CHFFA to dedicate to peer respites $3 million of the $9 million slated to go to brick-and-mortar costs for crisis residential programs. We explained our services before a board who had never heard what a peer respite is nor of the impact it can have within a local system of services. The knowledge and understanding we shared opened the coffers! That year CHFFA offered $3 million in grant funding for peer respites to buy or build properties needed for services. Encompass applied for the funds and we worked closely with Senior Manager Inbal Yassur, who took on most of the work. We attained a $1.126 million award and the task of finding a home. We bought a house in Aptos, California. It became our beautiful new second story.
All good (and as it seems, not-so-good and even great) things must end. We had finally found peace. A haven of rest and hope and new beginnings. We spoke of expanding services to have an annex, with solid commitment from all around us. Our respite house had found the Promised Land. Heck, I was looking for new work, believing it was time for others to take the helm. At a team meeting on August 6, 2018, I was still confirming that the planned expansion that we needed to remain in good stead with our CHFFA funder was still moving forward. Yet on the next day, I found myself sitting down with my clearly upset supervisor for a meeting and immediately I knew. I grimaced as I anticipated her words. I sank into the understanding as the words spoken said, “2nd Story is closing.”
I offered condolences to her as she completed her stricken statement; I knew how much our program meant to her. Out of reflex, I started looking for the positive and trying to find hope that the new program the county wanted to build with and for us could be just what we needed. “This is exciting!” I said. I walked out the door in shock, moving on autopilot toward my home. I spent days in the sickbed unable to rise. An eight-year commitment of responsibility and faith, gone.
When announcement got to the team, I relived the shock and I was prepared. I was ready to walk toward the future. The team reflected the same shock, confusion and pain. We held onto the dying of our dream. We could hardly believe anything said. Yet we knew it was true.
When Yana learned of the closure, the fight was on. Our longtime ally, NAMI president Carol Williamson, also joined our cause immediately; as did Betsy Clark, the first Encompass supervisor for the program, now serving as a NAMI board member. These three, each now with time to offer, graced us with their skill sets, autonomy and stature in the community to chart a course of resistance. They also knew how and when to step back and let us fight the good fight.
We called a team meeting to create a multi-tiered plan. The first step, acting now not as employees of Encompass Community Services but rather as peers, allies and advocates for respite services (although in hindsight this all became quite blurred), was to approach our County Board of Supervisors. County supervisors are responsible for a whole slew of financial and administrative decisions in the county, one area being mental/behavioral health. We aimed to tell our stories: peers, family members and providers. We went to three meetings with as many as eight people speaking for three minutes each. This Board listened, heard and felt Jessica and Ridge’s experience. They found reason in Tracy and Erika’s alacrity of thought. Many guests, family members, provider colleagues, former guests and former workers stepped forward to the microphone. It was easy to see the Board cared about the successes we achieved in the community. We spoke about life reclamations and finally finding chosen family. It was an offering they couldn’t refuse. These meetings appeared regularly on community TV. It was the stories that made the difference.
Together, Carol, Yana, Betsy and I reached out to each of the Board of Supervisors, and to a State Senator and State Assembly Member from our area. County supervisors essentially act as bosses for the Directors of County Health and Behavioral Health. The truth was that county staff members were in a bind. They loved the program but they had no ability to pay for it. They had already communicated to Encompass that county funding for the program would be discontinued and a new, smaller, non-respite based model would be proposed to take its place. With this information, our objective in these meetings was to uncover information and appeal to the supervisors to seek a path to fund the program. We had frank and candid conversations with these public officials. In the process, we discovered the obstacles we had to overcome.
As reported by the County Behavioral Health Director, the obstacles we faced were 1) funding for services, and 2) meeting the CHFFA grant requirement that we increase respite capacity from six to eight people while also requiring the county to sign a 20-year lease committing to using the CHFFA-funded building for peer respite services. We had discovered the action steps needed. We could now seek solutions.
As advocates, we learned that in such a situation, it could be vital to have one supervisor to champion the cause. We were fortunate to have such a champion. He spoke with the behavioral health director and the health director and gathered information about the problem. He arranged for meetings focused on understanding the obstacles, with the hope that they would be overcome. We determined that in the future, as advocates we would make allies of our Board of Supervisors.
The team mapped out exactly whom to reach out to and who would reach out to whom. We connected to allies across our community: provider organizations, county behavioral health service coordinators and therapists, housing specialists. Peers all throughout the county, peer organizations outside of Santa Cruz County, including Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, Mind Freedom International, and Live and Learn. Pro-peer organizations, The Foundation for Excellence Mental Health Care, Mad in America, Mental Health Services Act Commission, Local Behavioral Health Board, neighboring county agencies in San Jose, Facebook, and neither least nor last, NAMI Santa Cruz Families.
Most of these organizations and committed individuals offered support through letters or phone calls. The support was astounding. Letters from people about how 2nd Story affected their lives, or about how a respite house is needed in their community, or the evidence showing how effective respite services are. People asking how they can help and then taking steps to help. We asked people to write or call the Board of Supervisors to make a decision on our behalf. We asked them to help us find a way to fund 2nd Story by letting others know what a respite house does and is.
We discovered that over the years, we had integrated our respite house into the Santa Cruz County system. We had built solid relationships with a number of provider and peer organizations and NAMI. We had learned how to interface with the system and how to share the peer perspective. Ultimately, our relationships saved us. We had worked to start our own organization with the same providers who now were in position to step forward in our defense. We tabled downtown to get petition signatures. There was momentum. There was steam. There is movement still.
We approached the media. Hugh McCormick, a peer NAMI leader in town, works for the local paper called Good Times. He wanted to break the story of our closing and in doing so approached stakeholders to interview. His article opened readers to our plight and people listened. The Santa Cruz Sentinel also wrote an article. Both articles stated that the program was strong, good, and yet, still closing. We disagreed. No intention of closing. These articles put us on the map and played a significant role in our reclamation.
In California, we have what we call the Millionaires Tax—Proposition 63, established through a voter initiative in 2004. Californians voted on a 1% tax on all annual incomes over a million dollars, with monies designated for additional behavioral health services across the state. Commissioners who write and implement the regulations for specific service areas of the act, including Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) funding, govern the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). While speaking with a commissioner, we shared that we believed that PEI funds could be used for 2nd Story for a second round of funding. Through sleuthing, we learned of our correctness and began to bang the drum of our redemption. We shared this information with the Board of Supervisors and with county staff. There was still resistance to this idea but forward we moved. Our champion supervisor offered his quiet guidance as the MHSA Commission rose to the occasion.
We approached CHFFA to tackle the challenge of increasing capacity for the respite house to eight guests, which was one of the grant requirements. We could not increase above six beds without setting off a land-use permit request. This would mean that we would have to petition to change our respite services from a residential home to a business. We would also need to be a licensed facility. The community could challenge this permit request. It was not the optimal road.
This was a collective breakdown. It resembled an individual breakdown. There were moments when hope and faith were triumphant. Nothing could stop us. Our belief, our love, our community all stood in peaceful protest and request. We became interdependent with others. Exalted bliss in unity. Then days later, despair, loss, grief and less expectations. Now named to be forgotten, and the respite house community would be no more. At points along the way, some said we needed to stop, that we had lost. While others maintained we would save the house, there was no way we would fail. The rise of hope in the fall of despair. Much like a breakdown, our salvation lay in taking one step, then the next, then the next. We had no choice but to walk our way through it. The storm around us with the calm within.
The house moving forward, we did not give up on each other. We committed to finding the answers that we needed and accepting the outcome. We offered support to each other instead of imbalance. We did not unravel nor abandon ship. Four times a day at shift change, with anyone interested in attending, we discussed, planned and exchanged information. Communal meals happened, providers stopped by to offer and gain support, our deepest nature communicating with each other. We believed that opportunity was upon us. Crisis deemed it so. As the program was closing, openings remained.
First came murmurs of salvation through political means, then a week later, a meeting. We learned that a private, anonymous donor had approached the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and was prepared to make a donation to Encompass of the size needed to preserve the program. It would be the largest donation ever received by Encompass. The funds gifted would be enough to buy the house, pay back CHFFA, and thus relinquish us from the constricting agreements tied to the grant. The house was purchased outright and gifted to Encompass. Also included in the gift was an amount for operating costs to last an undetermined amount of time.
It turns out that the power of the press, Hugh’s Good Times article, caught the attention of mysterious benefactors. Individuals so inspired by his article, “End of the Story,” then looked into offering a gift. There is no telling what they saw after Hugh’s article, how much of the movement to save the house they witnessed, how impactful our stories were. There is no way to know who these mystery wonders are. It is simply unimaginable. Such a gift to Santa Cruz. We are indebted.
What exactly does this gift mean? It is more than a house. It is more than a program. It is a community. It is our service. The fight to save 2nd Story was triumphant. It was a breakdown and a breakthrough, collectively. We rose as we fell and we landed gently in good stead to what we are. The gift is so large and means so much that those in service of 2nd Story, the community, need to invest in a greater cause and collective purpose. The community that inhabits the house in Aptos, California will take this opportunity, carrying the same hope that got us here, and grow into the peer movement, with peer values and peer interdependence.
We activate the peer movement for not only ourselves, but for Santa Cruz. In the practitioners and providers, family members and friends we hope to align toward a stronger community. We are inseparable from our peers—everyone our peers. A united peer movement. We walk toward equality and feel embrace. The words that the behavioral system speaks, “trauma informed care, harm reduction, recovery is possible,” may take time to gather into reality. We got our baskets from walking through hell yet again. Let’s see what we collect now.
Please note that I made no mention of a Peer-Run, Peer-Operated 2nd Story. We listen to hear.