A $1.4 million grant from Lilly Endowment will go toward the creation of six peer support specialist positions at Horizon House, a day center for Indianapolis residents experiencing homelessness.
The specialists will work with Indianapolis residents who are currently homeless, as well as individuals who have recently received housing, to overcome barriers in employment, substance abuse disorder and assist in housing retention, among other things.
Kevin Williams, a trained peer support specialist, said homelessness isn’t a stand-alone issue, and specialists have to know how to handle many situations, such as substance abuse disorder and mental health issues.
“There are multiple tiers of situations that transpire when you’re dealing with homelessness,” Williams said. “Some people choose to be there, others have mental issues that don’t allow them to stay in one place safely, and you have to help them navigate that recovery process.”
Marcie Luhigo, director of development communications at Horizon House, said recovery means different things to different people. For some, it’s recovery from the trauma stemming from being homeless, or the trauma that led one to become homeless in the first place. For others, it’s recovery from substance abuse disorder or mental health issues.
Williams got his start in peer recovery in 2015, but his personal journey in recovery began in 2002.
“I got what I call a nudge from a judge,” Williams said. “I had two choices: go to prison or do something different. So, I got a sponsor and did what was recommended, but I always felt that it was something bigger in my heart.”
Williams is a few weeks shy of finishing his latest certification to work as a specialist and said the process has taught him a lot about not only the residents he works with, but about himself, as well.
“It’s definitely taught me about compassion and how to be more understanding,” Williams said. “If we don’t have these conversations, we stay stagnant. We can move forward, but growing forward is different, and having trainings and conversations like this help everyone involved grow forward.”
While both Williams and Luhigo agree that a $1 million grant won’t solve homelessness in Indianapolis, Luhigo said it’s a step in the right direction, and the more people — city and state officials, nonprofit directors and community members — working together, the better.
She also believes the peer support specialist program and others like it will reduce the stigma those experiencing homelessness face and start conversations about why homelessness occurs in the first place.
“As peer support becomes more established in Indianapolis, you’ll see success stories come out of it, and that will help greatly,” Luhigo said. “It’s really important that we really come to a place where we understand that a lot of times, people who have become homeless are not the only ones who experience substance abuse, domestic violence or mental health issues. These issues occur in every [economic] class. … A person falls into homelessness because they didn’t have the same resources.”
A 2020 report from the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention and the Indiana University Public Policy Institute found roughly 1,588 Indianapolis residents were experiencing homelessness. About 88% of those individuals were sheltered in emergency shelters, transitional housing or safe havens when the study was conducted in January.
Despite making up 28% of the Indianapolis population, 54% of the homeless population in Indianapolis are Black. Throughout the state, 28% of Black Hoosiers live in poverty — a catalyst for homelessness — compared to the 20% national average.
The grant will be allocated over the course of five years. In that time, Luhigo hopes peer support specialist programs get the recognition she said they deserve.
“We really hope to demonstrate that peer support is best practice,” Luhigo said. “When working with individuals in recovery, it’s becoming the go-to vehicle where people are finding tremendous success.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.