Centerstone launches Keys to Recovery program specifically for people who are homeless

Oct 02 2019
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Centerstone launches Keys to Recovery program specifically for people who are homeless

By: Hannah Herner


This story is part of a series on homelessness and health care. Read more about the TennCare coverage gap and Neighborhood Health Clinics.  


Local mental health service provider Centerstone recently introduced a program just for people experiencing homelessness, called Keys to Recovery. 

“It’s hard to work on the substance abuse or the other underlying issues causing the substance abuse if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night,” says Stephanie Cooper, program manager for Keys to Recovery.

In order to take part in this program, clients must be experiencing homelessness along with either mental health problems or substance abuse. The program lasts for nine months from enrollment to completion, and works to get clients sober, mentally healthy, and connected to needed resources. 

The Keys to Recovery program strives to use a housing first model, which in its purest form would get clients into permanent housing before participating in further services. This entails getting clients off the streets and into transitional housing while they work on finding permanent housing. Employing a housing first philosophy wasn’t a requirement of the grant, but it’s something the team behind this program believes in. 

When working with Keys to Recovery participants, Program Housing and Employment Specialist Erwine Sainvil starts with a questionnaire in which clients specify what part of town they want to live in, what type of living environment they prefer, and how many bedrooms they need. She then relies on a network of connections with other programs and private landlords, as well as well as an intimate knowledge with the Section 8 application process, to try to get participants housed according to their needs.

“I’m trying to make it as person-focused as possible, but I’m not going to lie, it’s definitely difficult because we are experiencing the housing crisis and there are limited resources,” Sainvil says. “But we definitely try to start with temporary and then, depending on the situation it could be transitional. But the long-term goal is to get permanent.” 

With the clients she works with, Sainvil says she runs into more barriers with finding housing than employment. While she notices more workplaces becoming “felon friendly,” landlords haven’t gotten on board as much. Another common barrier is a record of past evictions and past due rent — people transitioning out of homelessness are rarely given a fresh start when it comes to that.  

Keys to Recovery is run by a team of six: Cooper, Sainvil, two case managers, a therapist, and a peer recovery specialist. No specific parts of the program are required for the clients, but what is required is that clients play an active role in the program, and keep appointments. Meetings often take place at encampments or fast food restaurants near where the client lives or works. The program also provides smart phones to dedicated clients, complete with mental health, job search and housing search apps to help them be proactive. 

“The big one is that we’re here to support you in achieving your goals, but we’re not here to achieve your goals for you,” says Cooper. “It’s going to mean so much more if you do it. I’ve seen times where stuff just gets done for [clients], and at the end of the 9 months, I don’t want them to be back in the same situation because we just did everything for them.” 

Peer recovery specialist Daniel Motel says he hasn’t experienced homelessness, but he has come close, as a result of his prior substance abuse. Motel works one-on-one with clients and brings his own testimony of recovery to the table.  

“I think that it’s important for people to know that most of the people we work with, they want something different,” Motel says. “They come to the appointments, they work with us. It’s not forced, like it can be with meeting a parole officer or something... People want help, they need the support and that’s what we’re here to do — to get them out of that state and get them housed and get them away from a lifestyle that they were in before.”

The hope is that participants will decide that sobriety is important to them, and want to maintain the positive changes in their lives, but Keys to Recovery will still work with clients even if they aren’t sober at the time.

As clients phase out of the program in the final three months, the biggest goal is to build up a support system around each client. This could involve finding them more sober environments, connecting with mentors and accountability partners, arranging ongoing outpatient substance abuse treatment, and even helping to repair relationships with family members.

In order to take part in Keys to Recovery, clients can be literally homeless (sleeping somewhere not meant for habitation), couch surfing, staying with family, in volatile or precarious living situations or simply not listed on a lease. People coming out of inpatient rehab or incarceration can also take part.The Keys to Recovery Program will survive on $400,000 federally-funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration dollars per year for 5 years, as of fall 2018. 


When talking about the people this program Sainvil says she avoids using the word “struggling,” as in “struggling with substance abuse,” or “struggling with homelessness” and instead uses the term “transitioning out of homelessness.” 


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