Peer Mentors Use New Lifesaving Skills to Revive Unconscious Shelter Resident

House of Hope’s Peer Mentor program, a job-readiness program for homeless men and women, includes training in advanced first aid

SHORTLY AFTER  10 P.M. ON COLUMBUS DAY, 2015, Regina Perreault, a House of Hope supervisor at Harrington HHarrington Hall.4.16.14 013all, the big homeless shelter in Cranston, discovered one of the residents unconscious in a shower room.

As she phoned 911 to summon paramedics, Perreault also called for Kyle,* 45, another resident of the shelter, to follow her into the shower area.

“The gentleman had a bluish, gray color,” Kyle recalls, “and I turned him over to see if he was breathing. He wasn’t.”

Kyle applied two strong “rescue breaths,” but still the man didn’t respond. So Kyle began full CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). A fellow resident, Thomas, took the man’s pulse, but couldn’t feel one.

Knowing the man had a drug history, Perreault called for Lawton, 29, a resident who was lying on his bunk in the vast rows of beds at the shelter.   She knew Lawton was equipped with Narcan, the drug overdose antidote.

Rushing to the shower area, Lawton got ready to administer the antidote, but the needle wasn’t working. He turned to Thomas, who also had a Narcan rescue kit. Lawton calmly plunged the needle into the man, as Kyle continued CPR. Within seconds, Lawton says, the man “came back to life.”

By the time the rescue unit arrived, the once-unconscious resident was on his feet, claiming that he was “fine.” To the contrary, Lawton told him, he had to go with the paramedics: “We brought you back from the dead.”

     Program provides intensive training

HOW WAS IT THAT RESIDENTS of an overnight shelter – men who were themselves homeless and presumably at a low period in their lives – could employ sophisticated lifesaving techniques so calmly, confidently and skillfully?

It was no accident.

The men were participants in a “Peer Mentor Training Program” begun this year by House of Hope Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit agency that manages Harrington Hall and has worked more than a quarter century to find solutions to homelessness in Rhode Island.

The six-week Peer Mentor course qualifies homeless men and women for paid staff positions at House of Hope facilities such as Harrington Hall and jobs at other social service agencies. It’s a way of helping them chart a course out of homelessness.

Training up to eight participants at a time, the course provides intensive certificate-level instruction in first fid, CPR and administration of Narcan, also known as naloxone.

Other topics include social service procedures, such as protecting the confidentiality of clients, use of non-violent techniques to de-escalate arguments, understanding the challenges facing gay and transgender people and learning to maintain appropriate boundaries between clients and the people who help them.

So far, one program graduate has been hired to House of Hope’s fulltime staff at Harrington Hall and a Pawtucket winter shelter. Nine Mentors have been placed in paid internships at House of Hope and another agency that helps battered women.

“If that guy had been on a downtown sidewalk, how many people would have just walked by?”

The goal is twofold: qualifying former and current homeless people to work in paying jobs, an obvious step in finding permanent homes; and bolstering their self-esteem and confidence as they overcome the dispiriting experience of homelessness.

“All of them want to give back,” says Theresa LaPerche Nobrega, a House of Hope staffer who coordinates Peer Mentor program, saying that as the participants find their way out of homelessness, they want to help others do the same.

“It really shows their character,” she says. Looking back at the Oct. 12 incident in which Kyle, Lawton, Thomas and other Peer Mentors aided the unconscious man, she notes this might not have happened in a different setting:

“If that guy had been on a downtown sidewalk, how many people would have just walked by?”

     A new approach to ending homelessness

HEADQUARTERED IN WARWICK, House of Hope owns or operates 22 sites throughout Greater Providence and oversees a range of social service programs designed to end homelessness.

The agency took over the state contract to run Harrington Hall in 2009, when the shelter was mainly a revolving door for chronically homeless men, with little being done to help them other than to provide a place to sleep on a night-to-night basis.

A former gymnasium at the Pastore Center in Cranston, the state’s historic institutional complex that includes prisons, hospitals, a traffic tribunal and offices for state agencies, Harrington Hall officially has 88 beds. But often, it houses 140 men a night, with some forced to sleep on mats on the floor.

When it took over, House of Hope began offering intensive counseling to steer shelter residents to social, health and other services to help them break the cycle of homelessness. Indeed, some long-term homeless residents have moved into stable, safe housing, with some able to pay the full rent.

Harrington Hall.4.16.14 021

Now, under a new plan developed by Jean M. Johnson, House of Hope’s executive director, a “rapid assessment and rehousing center” is being created at Harrington Hall. The goal is to reduce the need for emergency shelter beds through programs designed to quickly guide more people to permanent homes, as well as to prevent people from becoming homelessness.

The Peer Mentor Training Program is the first of the center’s vocational programs, which will use Harrington Hall’s staff functions activities, as well as the facility’s operating systems, as job training opportunities.

Since spring, the Peer Mentor program has been qualifying shelter residents for regular staff positions at Harrington Hall, such as overnight security, coordination of day programs, outreach to homeless people living on the streets and similar jobs.

Other programs are on the drawing board.

For example, Harrington Hall is undergoing a state-financed $2 million renovation, which includes installation of a commercial-scale kitchen.    House of Hope will use the kitchen as job-training site, with shelter residents preparing meals for the shelter under supervision of a professional chef/ educator. The experience, in turn will help qualify them for jobs in Rhode Island’s well-regarded restaurants and related businesses.

The kitchen program got a boost when Bank of America on Nov. 10 awarded House of Hope its prestigious Neighborhood Builders grant, a $200,000 over two years, which House of Hope will use to launch the new effort.

Similarly, a community garden is envisioned for open space next to Harrington Hall. It would be tended by shelter residents and other homeless persons, growing fresh produce for the kitchen; that experience also could lead to jobs in greenhouse, landscaping and related businesses. New laundry facilities at Harrington Hall likewise will provide work experience.

     Helping themselves; helping others

WILLIAM STEIN, House of Hope’s associate director for clinical services, says the Peer Mentors have an unusual capacity to work with homeless people, since they’ve experienced it themselves.

The program, Stein says, “allows homeless and formerly homeless individuals to draw on their own unique experiences to empower themselves to take on a leadership role within their community.”

“Who better to help and understand a person in need than a person who is going through the same problems?” Johnson says. “It is difficult to be homeless.

Not only do the Mentors understand the stress and hurdles of trying to survive without a home, Stein says, they are more likely to be accepted by homeless men and women who may have lost faith in institutions and service providers.

Jean Johnson, House of Hope’s executive director, agrees.

“Who better to help and understand a person in need than a person who is going through the same problems?” Johnson says. “It is difficult to be homeless. You stand in line, hoping you will get a bed; you stand in line and hope you will get a mail. You don’t know where you will be when it gets too cold or too hot or where you can find a spot to sit down when you need to rest.”

The Peer Mentor program doesn’t address all problems that contribute to homelessness, says Johnson. But it has the dual benefit of adding unique sensitivity to its staff services, while changing the outlook of those emerging from homelessness.

“It gives the people who are in this situation of homelessness some control of their lives,” Johnson says. “It gives them respect for themselves, and reminds them that they are capable of doing important and good work.”

      ‘All are successful in their own right’

PEER MENTOR TRAINEES receive $50 payments each week and a $150 bonus at graduation, both as incentives to attend and as a hint of the rewards of paid work. Internships likewise are paid.

Financing for the $50,000 program has come from grants from a foundation, the Carter Family Trust; and from the federal Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program, through the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.
Stein, a licensed independent clinical social worker, designed much of the program, with some topics taught by House of Hope staff, and others by outside experts, who run training sessions that lead to certification in specialized areas.

For example, The Miriam Hospital in Providence sends a representative to certify Peer Mentors in use of Narcan; Gateway Healthcare, a major behavioral health program, provides certification in mental health first aid.

Stein runs sessions in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention, which involves techniques to calm potential outbreaks of trouble, for example, deescalating verbal arguments before they turn into fights.

Two 96-hour-long Peer Mentor classes have been completed so far, with a third underway. One or two more sessions are planned during the rest of the fiscal year that ends next June, meaning more than 30 men and women will have completed the program by mid-2016.

Theresa LaPerche Nobrega, the Peer Mentor coordinator, says the training provides a way for participants to chart the direction of their lives.
“We are not changing people,” she says. “We are giving them a vehicle to change. They all want a vehicle to be able to get out of homelessness. And they are all successful in their own right.”

     For Peer Mentors, personal impacts

KYLE, ONE OF THE MEN who rushed to the rescue of the unconscious man on Columbus Day, is completing a paid internship at Harrington Hall.
“He’s been such a huge asset to the staff, says Theresa LaPerche Nobrega. “They rave about his help.”

Lawton, another Mentor who helped revive the man, says he began volunteering at Harrington Hall in July after his third day at the shelter. Joining the Peer Mentor program provided new insight into how others experience homelessness.

“It really opened my eyes,” Lawton says, “and it teaches you that there is a lot going on with people and not to be judgmental.”

Lawton, who is waiting for an internship, founded a book group at Harrington Hall, and now is working a staff member to develop a literacy workshop, after realizing that some people at the shelter can’t read or read well.

The assistance that Lawton, Kyle and Thomas provided the unconscious man (who was asked to seek substance abuse help as a condition of returning to the shelter) was widely appreciated by other residents.

One evening, Lawton found 15 books on his bunk, a tribute from other residents who knew he was creating a library for his book club. Some residents called him a “celebrity,” although the label made him uncomfortable.

Lawton looks on the assistance that he and other Peer Mentors provided the man as a logical extension of the training they received in program.

“I did what needed to be done, and I had the resources to save him,” Lawton says. “I don’t need someone to pat me on the back.”

* For privacy, House of Hope is using only first names in this story