The agency I used to work for has come under scrutiny lately for practices that mental health advocates and peer support specialists have found inappropriate. The agency was a powerful advocate for peer support and helped develop the model which was used to develop and train many of us. However, over the years, many of us have left due to the difficulty of working with the Executive Director, arbitrary personnel policies and low wages.
My morale fell several months ago after I learned that a complaint had been filed that caused Milwaukee County to conduct a full scale audit of the agency which contracts with Milwaukee County to offer services for mental health services. After several failed attempts to obtain a better paying position, I finally left at the beginning of this month. In my interview I made it clear the kind of salary and benefits I was seeking. The interviewers agreed to them so readily I almost thought I should have asked for more. I’m also being given a lot more responsibility as a team member that I ever had and that feels gratifying.
I am also grateful for the relationships I developed with consumers over the years while I was working in supported apartment programs. I understand that almost all experiences have good and bad sides to them. While I often felt underpaid and unappreciated, the consumers I assisted reminded me how important I was to their recovery. This included the farewell celebration for me a few weeks ago. In my exit interview, I recommended that my former agency make a lot of improvements.
My suggestions included the following: 1. Raising the starting hourly wage for peer specialists to $9.25 with higher wages for certification; 2. Regular formal performance reviews; 3. Phasing in a plan to offer benefits, including paid sick time and holidays 4. Increasing opportunities for professional growth including the creation of more lead peer specialist positions . 5. Regularly posting open positions throughout the agency and greater transparency in the hiring process.
Some of the problems facing peer support specialists stem from the nature of the work locations. While it is exciting that so many units of permanent supportive housing have been created, these environments sometimes create safety risks. There are ongoing issues of drug and alcohol abuse, theft, residents moving friends and family into their apartments and numerous incidents of former residents returning and threatening staff.
Other problems from these locations stemmed from poor personnel decisions. These was a coordinator at a supportive apartment program who was clearly having anger management problems. This person could not effectively communicate with staff or residents and was involved in several nasty confrontations. In one of my last encounters with this person, the coordinator got into a shouting match with a resident after accusing him of stalking a staff member. The coordinator told me to call the police but I refused. Eventually the coordinator left to go to a meeting.
In the weeks following the confrontation it was impossible to get a straight answer about what was going on. Was the coordinator returning? Was the coordinator fired? Was the coordinator going to be replaced? By the time I left, the position was still vacant, and the program seemed to be listing in the wind
The final issue I need to air is that sometimes the peer specialists with whom I worked were so bad, it was a wonder that they could have passed their training. One of the things these bad workers had in common was their lack of listening skills. If you’re not listening, how can you support anyone, not to mention a peer?
Those are problems were probably not addressed in the audit and so I don’t know whether they were included in the plan of correction presented by Milwaukee County.
I have been thinking about this blog and re-written it a few times. My intent was to let people know my perspective as a person who worked in peer support probably the longest of anyone with the agency. Even though I’ve turned a chapter in my life, a lot of the old pages have a lot of meaning.
My former agency remains a key player in mental health and enjoys substantial support. We are better off than we would have been without the vision that led to the development of the permanent supported apartment programs. The sometimes out of control director wrote the proposal that led to the creation of the Crisis Resource Center. I remember walking over to the building with her son before it had opened. And I have fond memories of Jim Hill dressed up as Santa handing out presents to the members who were crowded into the old building,a converted funeral parlor. There were plenty of unpleasant times as well, including myriad issues with the building, low morale and great financial hardship. I was threatened with firing on numerous occasions but in the end left on my own terms.
I hope that there will be substantial improvements in peer support in Milwaukee and I am part of the change.