Housing first retention counselor, Eva Baez has a passion for her work that is absolutely contagious. In her almost three years at Evergreen, she has worked as a care coordinator and currently focuses on getting chronically homeless individuals into homes of their own. Her personal experience seeing her uncle, who is schizophrenic, deal with barriers to housing and the stigma of having a mental illness influenced her decision to dedicate her profession to helping others.
Can you tell me about the work you do at Evergreen?
Absolutely. I’m a housing first retention counselor, so our program is unique in that it is designed to meet people where they’re at. We service individuals who have been chronically homeless, so homeless for over a year or more. In order to qualify, they would have to have a substance use disorder or a mental health diagnosis. So, we take these individuals, we place them into a unit and we pay their rent in full for the first year. Within that year, we help them get the benefits they need, whether it’s health insurance, cash benefits, SNAP, linkage to care coordination, so if they’re interested in receiving treatment they can do so.
Do the patients go into treatment after they are housed?
We’re not forcing our patients to go into treatment because we’re meeting them where they’re at. Many of them have just been focusing on where they’re going to sleep for the night for the past two years. Now they have what they need: a home. Now they can start thinking about their treatment and things like that.
Is there continuing supportive help for these patients?
Pre-COVID, we conduct monthly visits just to check out that everything’s going well and they’re adjusting well, if they have any apartment concerns or questions, we would communicate that to the landlord. It’s a really great program because we’re meeting people where they’re at.
We still continue to do the visits and actually after the first year, they only begin to pay a portion of the rent. We base their rent on their income. Whatever they’re receiving at that moment, we complete a form and put in the numbers and the computer’s a beautiful thing, it will spit out a number to us. We still continue to pay the rent in full to the landlord, so there’s no discrepancy. We love to have a good repour with our landlords because they’re important—they work with us. We have some really amazing landlords who really understand our patients.
Is it hard to locate apartments for patients? Do you have a network of landlords to pull from?
Yes, it difficult to place people now with the increasing price of rent. We do have to fall within a reasonable price. We have a limit. If it includes utilities, it can be a little higher. With the increasing price of rent, it can be difficult.. A lot of times we work with the landlords we already have because sometimes they have more than one unit, more than one building. That’s part of why it’s so important to engage with the landlords because from there we can obtain more resources.
How did you get into this type of work?
I love working in the mental health field. I have an uncle who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and I can recall one time being at the store with him and someone just kind of giving him a nasty look, not really understanding him. With his barriers, with his diagnosis, he was still my uncle, my uncle who I love very much. And I felt like, this is what I want to do with my life. I want to service people with these same diagnoses, same barriers, because they’re human beings, they didn’t ask for this, right? When someone has cancer, we feel bad for them, we give them sympathy. When someone has mental illness, just because we don’t see it, we don’t necessarily give them that sympathy. And for me, in that moment, I understood I wanted to help people like this.
This led me into going to school for psychology and going to work in the field. I did care coordination for several years. It was definitely a learning experience. I always think my patients have taught me more than any book could ever teach me. For that, I’m always indebted to my patients. I’m grateful for my them because they teach me so much.
I did care coordination for four or five years then I saw a posting for housing. I could always see that the issue in the field with helping a lot of people is that they unfortunately don’t have safe, affordable housing. So I said, ‘Wow. I would love to do that because this is such a big barrier where I can help them.’ Previously I worked a lot with people with mental health diagnoses, not necessarily substance use, so I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about that, as well.
Did your uncle have trouble being homeless or keeping a home, or was it more so the stigma that influenced you to pursue this kind of work?
Actually, he did have trouble with housing. Initially, as a family, we tried to step in. He lived in one of my grandmother’s units but that led to other problems because of his behavior. He was linked to a housing program. They did an amazing job of keeping him housed, no matter what his barriers were. I know it’s a little personal but I share this from a family standpoint because I know what it’s like to see someone I love go through those obstacles. When I come in to work I want the best for my patients. I want them to know there’s someone who cares about them.
It must be really rewarding seeing people placed into their homes for the first time. What have those reactions been like?
I think it’s definitely an adjustment. For the first time in a long time people have some place to go without worry and when they first get the keys reality really sets in. The average person may think they should be happy, but that person hasn’t had to be in survival mode. Now our patient can let their guard down. It’s an adjustment. It’s definitely an emotional moment when you have a patient for the first time and you place them into housing. That’s the only way I can describe it. You see it in their face, like ‘Wow. I got through it and I’m here now.’
How long does the process normally take from start to finish?
We try to keep available units on hand so when we get someone, we can get the paperwork completed. Every situation varies because sometimes you don’t even get in contact with the patient for a couple of weeks, then they need to come in to do the intake. I’ve had turnaround times as quickly as five days and I had one that took a month or so.
Do many people get hooked up with medical and supportive services afterwards?
Absolutely! I like to meet them where they’re at. First, I want to get them placed into the housing. If they are interested in other services, I will put in those referrals. The vast majority of people we help, yes, they do become linked.
What is your favorite thing about working for Evergreen?
I love my coworkers. I think they’re amazing. They’re willing to help when needed. They make you feel comfortable. I just think it’s a great group of people who work for Evergreen. We have such knowledgeable people in the supportive service staff and everyone is so friendly and great. I would encourage anyone who has questions to reach out. I am big about teamwork and our patients having a strong team. I think that is so vital. If we share the same patients, you will hear from me!
When you’re not at Evergreen what kind of things do you like to do?
Well I have two beautiful twin daughters. They will be 10 in February. I love them and I love to bake. It’s definitely a passion. And my family, staying in touch with my family. 2020 was definitely a trying year but baking and being with my family makes me happy.
What is your favorite thing to bake?
Do you have any hopes or plans related to 2021?
2021…you know what I learned in 2020? It was a trying year but so much greatness for me came out of it. I think being appreciative for all that I have and the little things in life. I definitely want to come up with a better morning routine for myself this year, including a little bit of meditation time. I also thinking I might want to start yoga.