Well, I did not burst into flame

Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people.  What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive.  We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.

Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.

I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.

Trapped by debt

I have been reading for the past several hours stories about people trapped in debt by payday lenders, title loan lenders and aggressive student loan collectors. The worst case of student loan collection was in New Jersey where a mother received a notice after her son had been killed that she was liable for his student loans.

The state aggressively pursues people offering little information about loan forgiveness and instead sends collection agencies to turn your life upside down. There was also no limit on the amount that a family could borrow, way beyond their ability to pay. As a last gasp some people declared bankruptcy, which could not eliminate the debts, but it greatly reduced their payments.

The stories of payday loans were equally as horrific. I noted that some unscrupulous lenders affiliated themselves with Native American tribes to escape state regulations. And some of them began to mutate as soon as one loan product was outlawed another sprang up. Like the installment loans which offer longer payment plans but interest just as high as their predatory cousins, allowing the crooked lenders to squeeze even more money out of workers.

I consider payday lenders a kind of guinea worm sucking up workers’ blood. And being trapped by payday loans, title loans and high student loan interest could lead a person to desperation. I am going to start following the good guys in this battle and seeing what ordinary citizens can do. The guinea worms have set up fake grassroots organizations to comment on proposed federal regulations and they spread money around to democrats and republicans in campaign contributions. Remember, always follow the money. When crooked politicians say there’s already too much regulation, find out where their cash is coming from. Stand up.

Evicted

oung black woman and flowers

I started reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond, about the devastating impact of evictions on poor people in Milwaukee. He has been all over public media being interviewed. The happy face of the young black woman is not the sort that is portrayed in this book. She looks like a woman from the middle class, maybe a social work student .She might have benefits and security from the kind of poverty that is ravaging people in the inner city

I liked her picture so I chose it instead of a depressing picture along the lines of what you will find in eviction court in Milwaukee. There you will find angry people of many different colors with one common thread. Not enough income. They may be people living along Wisconsin Avenue where a former girl friend lived. We were both being evicted from our respective houses. She was a CNA who over worked double shifts and I was a peer specialist.

What we had in common was the horror of no having benefits. Although some white people may also be getting evicted next week, I would bet that 75% of the evictees will be poor and black and many of them are mothers on SSI or CNAs or other low wage workers.

Over the past 9 months, I have been fortunate that only two consumers I was working with have been evicted.  Poor women on SSI. Supplemental security income, SSI, is inadequate. A few of the people we assist have vouchers from programs like My Home, live in supported housing that offers peer support and case management or qualify for senior housing. I am proud that I helped a few people get into those programs. More commonly, our consumers are living in a room and board or a large group home shared with several roommates.

The case managers try to monitor the housing, which helps take up a lot of their work. It can be exhausting to help someone maintain an apartment. There is a person who has a cleaner help take care of the apartment. And I help with grocery shopping. I sometimes have people who are so internally pre-occupied they are barely aware of my presence even when we are out in public. But with some public benefits such as energy assistance and food share, they get by with a little help from their friends.

There was a sad story in Evicted about a consumer being moved out of a building due to poor conditions and then the landlord got a call from a Wraparound case manager about moving a consumer into the same rat trap.  And this landlord was featured in a sickening story about going to a landlord seminar and telling white landlords how she could help them make money in the inner city using her as an intermediary.

I believe that this is far better than my early years as a peer specialist, living with roaches and incredibly underpaid. Far better than feeling angry and wanting to choke consumers who were living in far better surroundings than me. If you have a chance, you should read Evicted  and reflect on the impact of poverty on your life. What is your role in the life of poor people? Are you living in a house with dangerous conditions, without a smoke detector  and with a door that an angry person could kick down on the way to killing you?Do you fear that one of your 6 roommates will harm you? Are you struggling to survive on meager benefits while listening to politicians claiming you are cheating the system?

 

 

My thoughts about the state of the union

color painted child hand

I liked most of what I heard President Obama tell us last night in his State of the Union address. Let me go through a brief checklist:

  1. Taxing the rich: check and double-check. The rich have made out like bandits and basically own the Congress due to a horrendous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. I could tell by the sour expression on the face of Mr Orange, John Boner, that the President had struck a nerve.
  2. Middle Class tax cuts: again check and double-check. we need a much fairer system that rewards work. It was an excellent set up having a solid example of a woman and her family who are working hard and playing by the rules but need a hand up to help pay for things like child care.
  3. Diplomacy first and war only as a last resort.Checked  The negotiations underway with Iran over their nuclear program were cited as a prime example. Some members of Congress have proposed imposing further sanctions on the Iranian economy at a time when the chances for a diplomatic solution are at a critical juncture. The President promised to veto anything that Congress approved tightening the screws on Iran instead of continuing to talk.
  4. Marriage equality: the President has thorough embraced equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people at that is a first. The fact he did so openly in front of the Supreme Court justices seated there in front of him was not lost on anyone. Check and mate
  5. Free community college for 2 years to help low-income workers improve their skills and get better jobs. Paid for by the taxes on wealthy Americans, this common sense approach to investing in people helps sharpen the contract between Republicans who focus on increasing tax breaks for their wealthy donors and Democrats who work to aid the middle class. This proposal harkens back to the post World War II era GI Bill of Rights that helped send a generation to college and buy homes.
  6. I was very glad to hear President Obama take credit for the vast reduction in the number of American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan. he inherited those wars from George W. Bush who conducted them without any thought about how to end them, whether we were prepared to fight and what a successful outcome would be. . This all results from American meddling. George W. Bush who conducted them without any thought about how to end them, whether we were prepared to fight and what a successful outcome would be. Iraq remains unstable and a miserable group of extremists called ISIL has taken over a large portion of Iraq and Syria. President Obama developed a strategy to mobilize and train soldiers from Syria and Iraq backed by American air support to help repel the invaders. He remains steadfast in his commitment not to be dragged into another long and drawn out occupation and he called for Congress to authorize the use of force, in other words, declaring war against ISIL. Whatever happens, he wants Congress to help own it. We are log past the debate over whether the initial invasion was a good idea; we are now talking about how to help repel a bunch of people from the 13th century.
  7. Related to the issue of military occupation is our obligation to help the veterans who sacrificed for their country get back on their feet. Dr. Jill Biden and Michelle Obama have been the public faces of the campaign to help employ veterans. How wonderful to have two such capable women as spouses for the Vice President and the President. This is part of a larger effort that includes reforming the Veterans Administration, modernizing the veterans health care system and ending homelessness among veterans.
  8. President Obama continues to push for infrastructure projects including roads, bridge, improved mass transit and other items. he has been doing this throughout his presidency including the passage of the stimulus package. We continue to hear about crumbling bridges and repairing and replacing them ought to be a bi-partisan issue including raising the gasoline tax enough to help cover the cost. However, the unfortunate thing about many of these Republican members of Congress is that they view any federal proposal as socialistic and don’t understand the concept of investing for the future.

There is much to admire in this list and so many other things that the president has proposed as being the right thing for America. I would have added the idea of completely legalizing marijuana and treating it like alcohol. We can save billions by moving away from the failed war on drugs which costs lives while imprisoning far too many people. The president’s policy on Cuba sounds like a solid idea, and he asked the Congress to pass legislation towards that end. However I would take it even further by returning the Guantanamo Bay to Cuba and removing that relic of gunboat diplomacy. Cuba should truly belong to the Cubans.

The other thing that must be said is that President Obama said he has no more campaigns to run because he won both of his presidential campaigns. Having said that, he has laid out a progressive vision that progressive candidates can use in future campaigns. i would say yes to a candidate similar to what President Obama articulated. Why not? i would have said much the same damned thing.

At the mental health and substance abuse conference, part deux

I am a veterans of these conferences held in Wisconsin Dells and organized for mental health and substance abuse professionals and consumers. The room I am occupying is more like a small conference suite with a bedroom and a meeting area with a full kitchen, There are two TVs:one in the living room and one in the bedroom. This is certainly an upgrade from the room at Chula Vista where I stayed for a Grassroots Empowerment Conference. At the Chula, the rooms were much smaller and there was a roommate.

I was here last year for a conference and did a lot of thing that made my stay a lot less comfortable. But i have learned. I am a veterans. And things are going well. i believe i have recruited the second member of my peer support specialist team at our agency. We will need at least one more person especially to help cope with the increased demand that will be generated by the Comprehensive Community Services.

I have witnessed the power of a strong team of certified peer specialists helping to spur the Our Space, Inc. residential programs that they staff. And I have also seen the peer support staff at La Causa which operates the Community Linkage and Support Program. Our agency will be the only one to fully integrate peer support within a case management program. And that will make us stand out from the others.

I want to see peer support and case management have a happy marriage. maybe even change the whole nature of the relationship between agencies and consumers. i want to see people getting the assistance to which they are entitled. And I want us to help people we are assisting become their own peer specialists. Who thinks this is a good idea?

TLS: building community on the backs of low wage peer support?

There is a large employer in Milwaukee County that contracts to run the Crisis Resource  Center and several apartment programs called TLS: Transitional Living Services.  I was part of the crew that opened the Crisis Resource Center under a peer services contract with Our Space, Inc. and it was a horrible way to make a living. The clinical staff whined the second that peer support appeared to exercise any independent judgment. I felt like what they wanted was people who would become expert at washing dishes. Actually, one woman who thrived in the system was a woman who became very anal about her dish washing. How does this fit any model of peer support?

Peer support is an evidenced based practice that shows people who are experiencing mental health issues respond positively to workers who had similar experiences. I worked along others like me who had college degrees. When I left Our Space, I was barely making $9 per hour. And I had to demand the increase that got me to that level.

How does that value me as an important member of a recovery team? Recently the Milwaukee County Board passed a Living Wage Ordinance that requires county contracted agencies to pay at least 100% above the federal poverty limit. That would be more than $11 per hour. I was told that TLS is paying peer support $(9 per hour. So, they’re paying a wage that I struggled to survive on more than 2 years ago and more than $2 below the Living Wage Law requirement.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been focusing on the problems plaguing the Milwaukee County mental health system and a good place to start would be wages. What are the wages paid in the hospital compared to the wages in the community?Is it fair to create a community based system on the backs of low wage peer support workers? These kinds of wages will leave to evictions, utility disconnections and even worse. Peer support workers are caught in the bind that is social security disability. Some peer support workers struggled to get approved for disability and fear they will be cut off prematurely. Making work pay a decent wage would give people a true incentive to return to employment and work themselves off disability benefits.

National Alliance on Mental Illness NAMI, Greater Milwaukee pays $12 per hour for peer workers, many of whom left positions with agencies like Our Space. In evaluating agency bids for services, Milwaukee County needs to begin looking at wages of different positions to see what kind of livelihoods the people on the front lines of mental health will be enjoying as they perform these jobs.

 

 

 

Re-Certifcation

I have been re-certified as a peer support specialist by the State of Wisconsin. This is a testament to my hard work over the past 2 years. Becoming certified was a major step in my life and brought about all kinds of rewards. It’s the kind of thing you guard very carefully. When you think of where you’re going and what you have accomplished, you have that rock upon which you can build. I have started my second graduate school class in community mental health and psychotherapy but I also owed it to myself to make certain I sent out my re-certification papers with plenty of time to spare.

Today I saw the email response to the papers I had submitted. I’m excited as I take this next step. I seem to be in demand. Also in the email were 5 recently completed policies and procedures by the Recovery Advisory Committee that I sit on which is assisting the implementation of a new Medicaid benefit called community recovery services. And I received an email at work that my presence is required at  the meetings for the new employment program. I had a very productive appointment today with a consumer regarding her employment goals. Things are moving ahead.

It will be good to go home and see my family feeling positive and spreading the news. I know that everyone will be happy for me.