The Housing First men’s support group: Solidarity, leadership, and “lots of love”

Community & consumer engagement Homelessness & housing

Our Housing First men’s support group began in 2018 as a way to bring together individuals with shared experience for solidarity and mutual support. It allows men in our Housing First program — all of whom moved into apartments over the last few years after experiencing long periods of chronic homelessness — to share their struggles and achievements in a supportive, nonjudgmental space.

“This is therapy for me,” says Jamal Brown, a Housing First support group participant as well as our Community Advisory Committee (CAC) co-chair, a National Consumer Scholar, and a participant in our Amplify consumer voices bureau. “Every day of our life we go through storms, but it’s comforting to know you have people who are willing to listen to what you’re going through. It’s important in overcoming bad habits.”

Every week Brian Thompson, Housing Coordinator and facilitator of the support group, sends out a reminder and a potential discussion question for feedback. Sometimes the group decides on the question, sometimes they’d rather have a more open-ended discussion. “We talk about our challenges and troubles, but also our wins,” says Brian. “It’s always productive, there’s lots of love, and we always uplift and support each other.”

“Before this I had no positive role models,” says Ernest “E” Wilson, another support group participant. “I go through things on a daily basis when it comes to my self-esteem, and it’s always good to have someone to give good advice. They don’t tell me stuff I want to hear; they tell me stuff I need to hear.”

“And we have a good sense of humor when giving advice!” adds Jamal.

Support through a pandemic

The group became even more important during the pandemic, when our Housing First participants struggled with isolation as the day programs they relied on for social connection closed and once re-opened, only offered limited hours. Even over Zoom or the phone, the weekly support group provided an anchor for the core group of men who attend every session.

“This platform keeps me focused,” says Andre Davis, support group participant as well as former CAC co-chair, COVID Community Ambassador, National Consumer Scholar alum, and Amplify participant. “When everyone turns their phones off, I gotta deal with Andre. This group reminds me to stay vigilant, stay on point.”

Many of the Housing First support group members have also become COVID Community Ambassadors, sharing accurate information about testing and vaccination with their neighbors, and passing feedback about how to improve access to testing and vaccination back to the Camden Coalition and New Jersey Department of Health. Brian says this just shows how the stability of having housing and having a support group fuels the participants’ desire to give back and speak up.

“Even though we’re in the pandemic, I’m growing and doing new things because of what I’ve been doing with the Camden Coalition,” says Jamal. “When you’re able to learn how to operate when conditions change, that shows that you’re able to grow.”

Support through loss

Along with the challenges each participant faces in their own life, the group has had to contend with internal losses as well. Two core group members passed away in 2021, including Antonio Matthews, known as Mr. Matthews to the group, right after the new year.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mr. Matthews had been interviewed by Dan Gorenstein for his popular Trade Offs podcast. In the episode, Mr. Matthews describes the anxiety of facing his monthly bus ride to access life-saving addiction treatment as someone with multiple chronic illnesses in the midst of a still-new pandemic. When his panic at the prospect of a crowded bus threatened his sobriety, he turned to the Housing First support group for help.

“We all rallied around him,” says Brian. “We all called him to talk it through, and to talk through the tools we utilize to get through our cravings. We validated his feelings, letting him know that it’s ok and normal to have those cravings. During the pandemic, being able to talk with him on the phone was a lifeline.”

As documented in the podcast episode, Mr. Matthews successfully managed his cravings and his anxiety to get on the bus and continue his treatment. When he passed, says Brian, “the group came together to highlight and honor him, and celebrated his life. Seeing all the guys want to participate in that solidified why it’s so important to do this work.”

Turning support into leadership

The support group has become a pipeline to leadership within the Camden Coalition, the Camden community, and the field of complex care through members’ involvement in our Community Advisory Committee (CAC), COVID Community Ambassador, National Consumer Scholar, and Amplify programs. 

CAC participants help guide the strategic direction of the Camden Coalition, and CAC leadership sits on our Board of Trustees. The National Consumer Scholar program is a leadership development program for consumer advocates with complex health and social needs from across the country. Consumer Scholars share their stories and expertise with a national audience at our annual conference and through our National Center webinars, and help lead projects alongside Camden Coalition staff and partners. Our Amplify consumer voices bureau connects organizations looking for consumer input with complex care consumers who can help plan programs, research projects, and convenings, and share their experiences at events. Many support group members are involved in more than one of these programs. For example, support group member Michael Jackson presented at our annual conference on the COVID Community Ambassador program alongside fellow CAC member and Community Ambassador Cisily Brown.

“It’s been a pleasure to be a part of this process, and giving back is the greatest thing,” says Andre.

“It’s so special to be a witness to that transformation,” says Brian. “It’s a privilege to be allowed into their lives and to build these relationships that ripple outward — that’s what it’s all about.”

The goal with this group has always been to facilitate it in such a way that the facilitator can step back and the group still runs itself. “It’s cool to see the group take control and formulate things that they want to talk about and what’s important to them,” says Brian. “It’s beneficial for everyone.”

“I’m sitting in my bedroom and listening to the wind howl,” said E during a recent support group meeting. “But the fact is, I have a roof over my head. I have a smile on my face because I have people I can talk to.”