On a rainy day in Roxbury at the Morgan Memorial Goodwill Center, Darrin Griffin, a 51-year-old man with a wide smile and a sharp gray suit, stepped to the podium, looked down for a moment, and shook his head, chuckling. The gathered crowd encouraged him to speak.
Griffin was one of 12 people graduating Tuesday from the Human Services Employment Ladder Program at Goodwill. He was chosen by his classmates to be one of two graduates to speak.
“There’s two things I’ve learned at this program. One is how to sound pretty impressive in an interview, and the other,” he said, fighting through tears, “is I will be okay.”
The Employment Ladder Program trains people with barriers to employment — such as past addiction or other hurdles — to take jobs in the human services industry. They read a textbook, they do mock interviews, they hear from Goodwill’s 11 employer partners and they have two tests a week. Griffin and his classmates will be qualified for jobs such as case managers and residential counselors.
Since the program’s inception in 2004, with a new class every quarter, it has graduated about 550 people.
“This is a period of real challenges in their life," said Goodwill Massachusetts’ CEO Joanne Hilferty. "Some of them might be homeless and not sure where to turn. This is an opportunity to really figure out how they can succeed and be prepared for a job,” she said.
Griffin, an Illinois native and former carpenter, had been addicted to drugs and alcohol for close to 30 years. In 2013, he became homeless when his landlord passed away and he was unable to pay his rent. He went to a homeless shelter as a short-term solution, but he stayed there for five years.
He says that while the shelter was disturbing, it was good for him.
“It's like, 'Oh my God, I don't want to be like these people.' I mean, the men's shelter is a wet shelter,” meaning drinking is not prohibited. “So they come in drunk and high on everything and anything, and opioids are a big problem in there. I never saw anybody with an opioid problem in my life until I hit the shelter,” he said.
At the shelter, Griffin met with a series of caseworkers, but he felt like he was “nothing” to them.
“You're just a number or whatever to them, you know, you're not a person,” he said, describing the caseworkers he met with as overloaded and unhelpful.
That was until he met Kara Bray, a community health worker for the Hospital to Housing program with the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance (MHSA).
The program was launched two years ago by MHSA and is funded by the United Health Foundation. The program aims to identify people like Griffin, who are homeless and heavy users of behavioral health services, and move them into permanent housing. With this program, each person is assigned a community health worker to help them personally.
Griffin was in the middle of a breakdown when he went to a Community Crisis Stabilization Unit, a mental health arm of a hospital aimed at helping the homeless. He was struggling with his medication for his bipolar disorder and anxiety and depression, and he went back three times to get his medication adjusted. By the third time he was there, MHSA identified him as someone who was at high risk and was a high cost for the hospital. Bray became his coach and counselor, and they both say they have also become friends.
“We have built a relationship. I hate calling her a case worker because she’s not — she’s my friend,” Griffin said. “It’s been everything in my recovery. How can someone truly help you if they don’t truly understand you?”
While Bray’s priority as part of her job title was finding a home for Griffin, she said she also cared about what happened to him after he had a roof over his head.
“A lot of our clients' issues can’t be straightened out until they have a home. Being sober is really near impossible,” she said. “But it’s a quality of life issue. We openly talk about their goals ... and how to have a life where he has peace and joy.”
MHSA Executive Director and President Joe Finn says inserting community health workers like Bray into the homeless community is working. According to a study on the Hospital to Housing Program released earlier this year, the use of behavioral health and emergency services for each enrolled person has decreased. And psychiatric hospitalizations have dramatically decreased for people who have gone through the program, reducing the average cost per person by nearly half in six months.
“It’s about changing how the system works and reducing the cost of emergency resources and dependence of those cycling in and out of the system,” Finn said. “We want to be the right resource for the right person at the right time.”
Finn stressed that community health workers like Bray are the lifeblood of their organization, because they can help “run interference” for people who are caught in the system.
In Griffin’s case, Bray helped him get an apartment in Roxbury, helped him with his medical needs and helped him get into the Goodwill program.
Bray said the connection that she and Griffin share through his recovery and resettlement is rare and valuable to the both of them.
“We both put in the time to make the connection. By having somebody on his side, when things got too tricky on his own, we’ve been able to take on it together,” she said.
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday for the past two months, Griffin and his 11 Goodwill classmates have learned the skills needed to enter the human services industry. More than 80 percent of graduating class members have been placed in jobs related to their studies.
Six years sober and three years clean from drugs, Griffin's life has changed dramatically.
He lives in a one-bedroom apartment near Roxbury Community College, where he plans to get his associate's degree next June, and he has a black-and-white cat named Jackie. He is holding Thanksgiving dinner at his house this year for his friends, and he is going home to Illinois for the holidays to see his family.
As for his job prospects, Griffin’s main goal is to work with children and young adults.
Bray said Griffin's graduation is a source of pride for her.
“I am delighted. Every time I talk about it it makes me want to cry. I know how hard his struggle was before this," she said. "It’s a miracle. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next for him, I envision that somehow we’ll be coworkers.” She laughed and told Griffin, “You’ll probably be my boss one day.”