Recognizing Women’s Day at St. Francis House

Recognizing Women’s Day at St. Francis House

Each year on Women’s Day, we strive to bring women together, amplify our efforts to provide healing, and help women find their inner strength to use for their recovery.

Women represent roughly 25% of the individuals we serve. While this is a smaller population, the needs of women who are experiencing homelessness are unique and can be even more challenging in some ways. They face all of the same issues as men but there are additional hardships that women often experience to a greater degree such as sexual exploitation and violence (both physical and emotional). These abuses are often the very things that lead them to become homeless in the first place. Profound loss is another commonly shared experience that leaves women feeling so emotionally and physically depleted that it is amazing to watch how they can rally to move beyond homelessness despite all their losses.

Throughout the year, we recognize these issues and dedicate programs and services to supporting our female guests. We have a Women’s Center dedicated to caring for women through special and targeted programming such as art therapy, meditation, health, and wellness. In addition to our consistent attention to this population, once every year we set aside a special day where we can create very deliberate and intentional messaging about their value and worth.

Reflecting on the planning of the event, Guest Services Manager Fabiana Videla states, “I wanted Women’s Day to be a celebration of womanhood, a celebration of the here, and the now. Just for fun, no further purposes or goals to achieve.” On this day, we bring women together for the special experience of understanding themselves and changing the internalized messaging from saying ‘you’re not worthy,’ to one where we are celebrating their resilience and strengths. So many of our guests who identify as women have been dismissed throughout their lives and there is a sense of irrelevance, but we hope to counter this by creating a special day and letting them know they matter and that they are not alone.

Massachusetts City Councilor Erin Murphy attended this year’s event as a special guest to address our attendees stating, “One thing I was always brought up to understand is that we are no better than anybody else. At any moment, we could be in someone else’s situation.” She went on to demonstrate her commitment to securing basic resources for every Boston resident.

We are so grateful for all our special guests, staff, and volunteers who made this event possible and are thrilled to continue to recognize, support, and uplift the women of St. Francis House on Women’s Day and throughout the year.

Mental Health Awareness Month: What Awareness Means to our Behavioral Health Team

At St. Francis House, supporting mental health is an important focus of our behavioral health department and the care they provide to guests. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke to Associate Director of Behavioral Health Molly Dugan about the importance of normalizing conversations around mental health and acknowledging that mental health struggles are a universal experience. Seeking care for mental and behavioral health can be an important part of recovery, and openness about mental health issues can lift the stigma and make it easier to seek care. However, people face more obstacles than just stigma when seeking mental health care. In this interview, Molly discusses the progress and the persistent challenges surrounding mental and behavioral health.

What is the connection between mental health and behavioral health? And what is the distinction between them?

I always think of mental health as a piece of behavioral health. With mental health, we think about our emotions, our feelings, and what’s going on in our brains day today. Then there are the bigger components that go into it. There is a mind-body-spirit connection at play and such a huge connection between mental and physical health. For example, how stress manifests in physical ways – high cortisol levels can have a significant impact on your body. Behavioral Health is a conversation about how these things intersect, and how do we strive for a place that feels like we’re doing “well?”

What do you think people need to know about behavioral health?

We can get caught up in the diagnostic part of it. Diagnoses can be frustrating on some level because it can feel like there’s something attached to you that defines you. For some people, it can feel like a relief because there is an explanation. But in reality, a diagnosis just provides a pathway that determines a course of treatment.

The other thing I want to normalize is that every single person in the world has a mental health struggle. It is very normal to struggle with anxiety, depression, and the ups and downs of day-to-day living and know that it’s a shared human struggle. If you’re struggling, it’s ok to have those struggles and it’s also really good to talk about it and to know that you are not alone.

Much of the criteria in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual now exists on a spectrum: mild, moderate, or severe. It’s ok to fall in any place on that and know that it is fluid. It’s a normal part of our day-to-day living and figuring out ways to manage it is like putting together a big puzzle.

Right now I hear a lot of conversations about self-care. I think people have a hard time defining self-care. I always ask about it in interviews and people will often say “I go to therapy, I go for runs, I do yoga.” It can sometimes feel like people are saying what they have internalized are the socially acceptable versions of self-care. Those are all wonderful things to be doing, don’t get me wrong, and there is evidence that backs up how helpful they are. But I also want people to feel empowered to think about their self-care differently and to know that if those things do not work for you, you can shape self-care to look like whatever is best for you.

Do people still experience stigma when seeking care for their behavioral health?

I love that more big-picture conversations and movements are happening, and a collective understanding that wasn’t always there where we’re normalizing talking about seeing our therapists. We get ads on Instagram and podcasts, and I see people engaging in mental health care for the first time later in life, and it feels more ubiquitous than ever. Even with all that, I still think there is a pervasive internalized stigma. People fear how they will be perceived by friends, family, or coworkers, or they can feel overwhelmed by what it means to be a person managing a mental illness.

Sometimes seeing a therapist means potentially being prescribed medication, which can bring up a lot of feelings around stigma. That is such a personal, complicated decision for people to make. I am a big proponent of doing whatever works. I know people who have successfully been on [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a form of anti-depressants known as] SSRIs for many, many years. I also know people who have found them to be good more situationally short term and that’s a wonderful option too. And then some people have complicated mental health diagnoses where maybe there’s a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and medication is a critical part of day-to-day functioning. People should work with their providers to get as much information as they can to inform any decisions, but also know they do not owe an explanation to anyone about their healthcare decisions.

What are some of the biggest challenges people face when seeking care for their behavioral health?

Right now, the biggest issue is a lack of providers. It’s something that we’re struggling with here in terms of hiring and getting people onboarded. I think the other thing that can be a barrier is addressing cultural competency within behavioral health. It’s really important to connect with a provider who, in many ways, can be a reflection of you and your lived experienced. We are always striving to have providers who can connect with guests around their own language, lived experience, and professional backgrounds.

I also think as much as we talk openly about stigma and being able to access mental health, there still is a hesitation. It’s really hard to navigate what can be a daunting system. I always encourage people that if you meet with someone and there’s not a strong connection you should feel encouraged to tell them and try something else. Just because one situation wasn’t a good fit, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone out there who can be. I know how hard it can be, and at the same time, it’s so important to find someone who can connect with your identity and your needs.

Why do you think awareness about mental health and behavioral health is important?

Because it’s so universal. It’s just a part of living. It can be stressful to be alive even when things are going well, and we also have to acknowledge that on hard days we’re going to need more help. I find it so helpful to use a trauma framework in my practice and accept the reality that the experiences we have had shape the way we interact with each other, with systems, and the world. I can draw on the empathy I feel for what a person has experienced, and through that, we can find an approach that works.

Everybody at some point in their lives is going to go through something more than they can handle. I want people to understand that when their moment happens and there’s something they need help with, it’s normal, it’s ok. We are all better off in a world with a little more kindness, compassion, and patience, and when we think about trying to connect with intention, we lessen the shared mental health burdens we all feel.

Meet Jose Rodriguez, our May Staff Spotlight

Jose Rodriguez joined the St. Francis House team in 2019 and serves as the Operations Coordinator in our Recovery Support Center. Jose values the connections he makes with the people coming through the RSC and brings his incredible empathy and understanding to those relationships. As a graduate of the Moving Ahead Program, Jose says he is grateful to be able to provide help at a place that helped him when he needed it.

How long have you been at St. Francis House?

I’ve been working at St. Francis House since September of 2019, but I came in originally as a guest. I’ve been coming to St. Francis House since 2017. I’m a MAP alumnus, I started in November 2017 and graduated around March of 2018.

Could you describe what you do here?

I oversee basic operations here, I do all the ordering of the supplies for meetings, groups, and activities, and I help uphold our practices in the center by encouraging members to participate. I ask questions and build camaraderie to connect with members to see what their needs are to lead them in the right direction and help them achieve one goal at a time. I don’t say that I have all the answers because, obviously I don’t, but I try to be what we call a resource broker and say, “Hey, I don’t know how to do that, but this person can help you.”

What is the significance of everyone at the Recovery Support Center having lived experience?

A common thread, a connection. Help isn’t coming from someone who hasn’t been through what they’ve been through. I was homeless for a while, I’m in recovery. When a guest starts talking, you understand what they mean and their struggles. When you try to help them out with a resource, you’ve used that resource. You can say “have you heard of MAP? It’s a fast track out of a shelter. It’s a good stepping stone and a great place to get started when you’re in recovery, need a place to stay, and looking for employment.” There’s just so much.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Connecting with the people. That’s the best part. Talking with the guests, developing relationships, and meeting people. Seeing people that you haven’t seen in a while. I’ve seen people who were in MAP classes before me or after me. I did a lot of work volunteering in the kitchen before I started working here so I see a lot of faces that I helped while I was in the kitchen.

It makes it seem like you’re not even working. It doesn’t feel like a job when you’re just having a conversation with someone about things that they should look into that would help them along. They say it’s motivational interviewing but it’s easier for me to do it when you don’t think about it as motivational interviewing. You try to think about what people need when they don’t realize that they need it.

It always starts as a normal conversation and once people feel comfortable with you, they’ll start telling you about their problems. That conversation probably won’t happen the first time but when you see the person and say “hey how are you doing? I remember last time you came here you were a little down.” You have to earn their trust.

It’s meant a lot to me because I never had the opportunity to give back to a place that helped me so much. This place has always felt like home to me.

Do you have a story that shows the impact that Recovery Support Center can have?

There are so many. There was a couple that went through MAP who were members here and they bought a house, the guy got his kids back. It’s almost like a movie, a story about rising from the ashes. But you don’t want just one success story, you want many.

Is there anything you wish people knew about the work you do?

I don’t see myself as special or anything like that, I’m just here to help. We’re all here to help people in their recovery, to help people out of homelessness.

We use multiple pathways here; we don’t just offer 12-step meetings. People choose different pathways, some more spiritual than others. Some are very 12-step, others want meditation (which is spiritual but not religious), and other people are very creative and want to do art. It’s trying to accommodate everyone fairly and uniquely.

Some people today are on medically assisted treatments like methadone or take other meds, so they might feel ostracized by traditional pathways to recovery. The “old schoolers” don’t see that as being “clean” because they have something in their system. Back then they didn’t have any of that, so they don’t see it as adhering to the traditions of recovery. But not everybody is the same. In some people’s eyes, it’s not perfect, but it gives them the ability to live a normal life. If somebody is taking suboxone for a few years or even the rest of their life but now they can work, go to the gym and participate in other social activities, that’s a lot better than struggling with active addiction and homelessness.