“Members of our community are not getting their needs met. And how can we look away from that?”
Ash is a certified peer recovery specialist at Park Center, a United Way partner agency that empowers people who have mental illness and substance use disorders to live and work in their communities.

“I myself am in recovery and have been trained to use the experiences that I had in the mental health system to help folks navigate that system as they move through their recovery,” he says.

Park Center is comprised of many different departments: homeless outreach, substance abuse, psychiatric rehabilitation and residential services—where Ash works. He works with people to get into affordable housing and then maintain it through two avenues at Park Center: Permanent Supportive Housing and Supported Housing. The Permanent Supportive Housing program offers one-, two- and three-bedroom units for people living with a serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders. In Supported Housing, residents receive psychiatric rehabilitation services to transition to independent living while sharing a bedroom with one other person.

“Some individuals experiencing homelessness haven’t had a home for 10 or 15 years, and it’s a big adjustment,” Ash says. “Living with roommates is very different than living on the street where you can just leave if you have a dispute.”

One resident that comes to mind for Ash is someone who had been living under a bridge for many years.

“We got him into housing, and he had a really hard time … feeling claustrophobic, just not used to living in a home. We were able to set him up with a tent in the backyard that he was able to sleep in until he got more comfortable being inside. And then he was eventually able to transition to sleeping in his bed in his home,” Ash says. “That was a really kind way for us to meet him where he was—listening to what he needed and being creative with the way that we were serving him. Because it would have been very sad for him to just be overwhelmed with the transition and then fall out of housing and back into homelessness again.”

This work hits close to home for Ash. He was working in a different field before Park Center.

“And then I got diagnosed with a mental illness myself and ended up in an inpatient program and just had my life turned around—literally. I was struck by how little people know about the mental health field and how difficult it can be to navigate. I mean, I am a white person who has some money, and it was difficult for me. And it’s so much more difficult when you bring race, gender, affluence—all those other things. And I just continued to learn all the inequities and I just … I never stopped.”

He says accessing affordable and affirming mental health services is hard for anybody, but especially for folks who have a low income or no income and are in the middle of a mental health crisis. He says this work still feels so important because there is so much more to be done.

“Nashville winters are not habitable. Folks are living outside and dying. During the winter months, people die from being on the streets and people are on the streets because the programs that we have in place are not serving them. So, it feels like work that I can’t not do or can’t forget about. Members of our community are not getting their needs met. And how can we look away from that?”

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